Chinese herbology and traditional Chinese medicine employ a wide variety of medicinal plants, some of which have hallucinogenic properties. In this article I review the Chinese hallucinogens, some of which are still used in traditional Chinese medicine, while others were used in folk medicine.
This article was inspired by the Wikipedia article Hallucinogenic plants in Chinese herbals.
Chinese name: wu tou.
Parts used: dried rhizome .
Its effects are stimulating, cardiotonic, analgesic, narcotic, and local anesthetic. When used topically, it may cause hallucinations, which is why it may have been used in witches’ ointments.
Used in Chinese folk medicine for headaches, hemiplegia, overheating of the body, rheumatism, arthritis, contusions, bruises, and broken bones. It was found to stimulate the immune system.
Many Taoist elixirs of immorality contain large quantities of aconite.
- Aconitum carmichaelii (fu zi) – in traditional Chinese medicine it is used to tonify and restore depleted yang. It is beneficial for palpitation, menstrual pain, and frequent urination (especially during the night) among other conditions.
- Aconitum chinense
- Aconitum coreanum (bai fu zi) – relieves muscle spasms, pain, and itching. Used for headaches and migraines.
- Aconitum hemsleyanum
- Aconitum kusnezoffii (cao wu) – used in TCM to treat some pain conditions.
- Aconitum lycoctonum
- Aconitum transsectum
Active ingredients: ibotenic acid, muscimol, muscazone, muscarine (in trace amounts).
Amanita muscaria has been used by Taoists searching for the elixir of immortality.
Chinese name: yun shih.
Alternative botanical names: Biancaea decapetala, Caesalpinia sepiaria
Parts used: roots, flowers, and seeds.
Medicinal uses: worm infestations, malaria, and inflammation.
The flowers are said to drive away evil and spirits and contain “occult powers,” producing somatic levitation and enabling the partaker to see and communicate with spirits. An overdose is said to cause delirium.
The seeds were used together with those of black henbane (Hyoscyamius niger) as a psychoactive incense for “summoning spirits.”
- Caesalpinia bonduc (somalata) – an ingredient in aphrodisiac preparations (e.g., oriental joy pills), this Indian species was proposed as a candidate for soma.
- Caesalpinia echinata (cumaseba) – used in South America as an ayahuasca additive.
- Caesalpinia paraguariensis – in Argentina, like Anadenanthera colubrina, it is known as guayacán.
- Caesalpinia pulcherrima – sacred to the Hindu god Shiva, it is a symbol of the divine phallus in the cosmic vulva.
- Caesalpinia sappan (su mu) – used in Chinese medicine to this day for disorders in which blood is not flowing or circulating as optimally as it could to all parts of the body, causing pain (including amenorrhea and postpartum abdominal pain) and for relieving pain associated with paralysis and external/traumatic injuries.
Chinese name: mantuoluo.
Botanical name: Datura ferox.
Medicinal uses: treating eruptions on the face, internally for colds, nervous disorders, and other problems.
Chinese datura like other species of Datura is a narcotic, which was considered scared in China. According to the legend, when Buddha was preaching, the heavens sprinkled dew or raindrops on the plant.
Taoists believe that it is one of the circumpolar stars and that envoys from this star carry a datura flower in their hand.
Active ingredients: tropane alkaloids, including atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine, which can produce hallucinations and delirium.
The ling zhi (“spiritual”) mushroom, usually interpreted as Ganoderma lucidum, but sometimes also as Amanita muscaria, has been identified as the legendary Chinese mushroom of immortality.
Taoist alchemists numbered the ling zhi among a group of “five wondrous fungi of immorality.”
While it is said to have potent psychoactive effects, studies have not yielded any evidence that it’s psychoactive.
Medicinally, it is used to treat insomnia, fatigue, cough, and asthma among other conditions.
Chinese name: lang tang.
The Chinese variety is known as Hyoscyamus niger L. var. chinensis Makino.
Parts used: seeds (tian xian zi).
Active ingredients: tropane alkaloids, especially scopolamine.
The seeds of the black henbane are highly toxic, and may cause delirium and hallucinations, however treatment by soaking in vinegar and milk is said to make possible their medicinal use.
The seeds after being properly prepared are ingested over a long period of time, giving power, strength, and endurance, while benefiting the mind. It is also said to produce a state of consciousness which allows for “communication with spirits.”
Medicinally, the smoke of Chinese henbane seeds is inhaled to treat cough, bronchial asthma, rheumatism, and stomach pain.
Related species used in the same way as Hyoscyamus niger in traditional Chinese medicine include:
- Hyoscyamus bohemicus
- Hyoscyamus pusillus
Active ingredients: psilocin and psilocybin (psychedelic hallucinogens).
Mushrooms producing uncontrollable laughter employed in traditional Chinese medicine were probably a type of psilocybin mushroom, perhaps one of the following:
- Banded mottlegill (Panaeolus cinctulus)
- Petticoat mottlegill (Panaeolus papilionaceus) – in Chinese it was known as hsiao-chun (meaning “laughing mushroom”)
- Laughing gym (Gymnopilus junonius) – Taoists prepared an elixir of life they called “earth drink” from this mushroom.
At least two species of mandrake were used in China:
- Mandragora caulescens (Himalayan mandrake; chi’ieh shen) is in TCM to treat stomach ailments.
- Mandragora chinghaiensis (Chinese mandrake; chinghai chi’eh shen) root was used in Chinese folk medicine.
Like datura, mandrake contains tropane alkaloids which are deliriant hallucinogens.
Chinese name: lung li.
Said to have hallucinogenic effects, lung li has been identified as Nephelium topengii, but that is not certain since this tree contains toxic chemicals.
Chinese name: fang kuei.
Parts used: roots.
Medicinal uses: eliminative, diuretic, tussic, sedative, tonic. With prolonged use, it may cause deleterious effects.
If taken in excess, the plant is said to produce delirium and allow the partaker “to see spirits.”
The roots (qian hu) of several closely related species are used in TCM to treat disorders of the lung and spleen:
- Peucedanum decursivum (zi hua qian hu) – used as a nerve tonic and aphrodisiac.
- Peucedanum praeruptorum (bai hua qian hu) – used in Japanese medicine to treat fever, shivering, and headaches.
Chinese name: lu gen.
Alternative botanical name: Phragmites australis.
Parts used: rhizome.
In traditional Chinese medicine it is used for irritability and other heat conditions.
Chinese name: shang lu.
Parts used: roots and flowers.
Medicinal uses: Taoists used the extremely poisonous red variety for abdominal parasitic worms though the roots are so poisonous that they are normally only used externally (e.g., for inflammation, rheumatism). They were also used in Chinese medicine to treat tumors, edema, and bronchitis.
It was compared to Panax ginseng and mandrake (Mandragora officinaum) and used as a substitute for Atropa belladonna root.
Sake may have sometimes been brewed with Phytolacca acinosa roots.
It was much in ancient times for “seeing spirits,” and summoning them.
The flowers are used to treat apoplexy (internal bleeding).
The white variety (var. esculenta) of the plant was used for longevity,
In traditional Chinese medicine it is used as a diuretic to eliminate water accumulation in conditions, such as edema and ascites.
- Phytolacca americana (pokeberry; “American nightshade”) – used by North American Indians as a narcotic, it is a hypnotic herb, which can help induce a deep and healing state of sleep. Additionally, it is a very strong hepatic alterative (a herb which gradually restores proper functioning to the body and increases overall health and vitality).
- Petiveria alliacea (mucura) – the Shipibo-Conibo claim it has hallucinogenic properties
- Rivina humilis (coralillo) – said to be identical to an Aztec narcotic.
Chinese name: shui lang.
Medicinal uses: externally for irritation and inflammation.
This poisonous plant produces a maniacal delirium, appearing like a stroke and sometimes with blood-spitting.
- Ranunculus acris (field buttercup).
Chinese name: fang feng.
Alternative botanical names: Siler divaricatum, Ledebouriella divaricata.
Parts used: Roots.
Once used as an antidote for aconite poisoning, it is said to produce a state of madness.
It is still used today in Chinese medicine to treat body aches and pain, headaches, aversion to cold, muscle spasms and cramps, and other conditions.