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Macaulay Honors College


Jayne Chen

INTRODUCTION Mushrooms have long been an integral part of society and culture in the East Asian countries, with a particular focus in China, Korea and Japan. Peoples of East Asian descent know the mushroom to be of great value; seeing it as both a healer of sickness and a gateway to a spiritual realm of belief. In this article, the mushroom is examined with a cultural basis; first within medicine and then within expressions of spiritualism.

and therefore much of the research remains ambiguous by Western standards. It is also important to note that some of the most "famous" mushrooms that originated in the continent of Asia (such as the reishi mushroom) have intertwined histories and shared uses among all three countries. These mushrooms will be discussed within the next few sections.

The spiritual realm and elements of divine life are an integral part of This article is broken down into the East Asian culture. From concepts three main countries of focus. Each found in religions such as the section examines the history of traditional Mahayana Buddhism medicinal mushrooms within each or Taoism, spirituality serves as the country and its current stage of gateway to a higher function of research development in the future of life. Common practices within medicinal mushrooms. It is important East Asian cultures is to revere the to note that much of the research idea of immortality, inconceivable done within these East Asian longevity and otherworldly richescountries may not carry over to the both in health and in wealth. The United States- in fact, a large Chinese, Japanese and Koreans summation of the science of alike sought out tangible items mushrooms has not yet been that they believed acted as exposed to the Western hemisphere. engines of spiritual enlightenment and Many textbooks and medicine transformation. One of the most handbooks have not yet been revered among all three cultures translated from Chinese, is the mushroom.

CHINA & MUSHROOMS Unlike Western cultures, where medicine and science relies solely on fact, much of what makes up medicine and science in the Chinese culture stems from generational knowledge and observation passed down through oral and written tradition. This practice is most commonly known as and referred to as TCM- Traditional Chinese Medicine. Traditional Chinese Medicine is still widely practiced today- among both societies in China as well as their immigrant counterparts in the United States.. The history of mushrooms within TCM begins wth the publication of "Bencao Gangmu" (translated to "The Compendium of Materia Medica"

basis for many of the mushrooms listed in the medica, as well as hundreds of others discovered since 1593. Pharmaceuticals and research scientists in the Eastern Hemisphere have found that the biomedical properties found in mushrooms contribute to several responses in humans: cholesterollowering, anti-diabetic, antiinflammatory, and antioxidantamong many others.

The most widely known of the above-mentioned "discovered mushrooms" originates in China as the "Lingzhi" mushroom and classified as Ganoderma Lucidum. This mushroom specifically This 53 volume collection, published contains water-soluble in 1593 was written by Li Shizen and polysaccharides that have yielded contained over 25 years of field study anti-tumor results. Through and comprehensive readings from methods of extraction and medical reference books. With over property isolation, substances that 1,892 medicinal sources, "Bencao originate from the lingzhi can also Gangmu" also included 20 medicinal reduce blood pressure, blood mushroom species. cholesterol. Blood sugar levels can also be regulated through Drawing inspiration from this decades consumption, as the lingzhi old encyclopedia, researchers have mushroom can inhibit platelet since made a significant amount of aggregations. progress within developing biological

CHINA & MUSHROOMS (CONT.) The Lingzhi mushroom has been spoken of in the context of its ability to perhaps, one day, act as a treatment for cancer. Currently in the stages of development, the scientific reasoning behind this is due to the mushroom's immuno-modulating properties. When these specific polysaccharides and proteins are isolated from the mushroom, effects such as the activation of T cells and macrophages occur. These result in the production of cytokines and interferons/ interleukins, both of which play a big role in cancer immunotherapy. Methods of extraction include boiling the mushroom in hot water and converting it into home-remedy style soups and teas. Lingzhi mushrooms are also converted into tablet and standard pill form. The chart below is a short, compiled list of the most potent pharmacological effects of the Lingzhi mushroom.

Although Lingzhi has a global reputation, the most commonly used mushroom in Chinese medicinal fungi is the Fu Ling mushroom (classified as Wolfiporia cocos). This mycorrhizal fungus grows primarily on red pine trees in China and its key active constituents include immunomodulating polysaccharides. This mushroom provides a more extensively documented range of biological activities that sets it apart from the Lingzhi mushroom. Most noticably, the Fu Ling mushroom was tested in clinical trials for the treatment of hepatitis. An example of a mushroom known throughout the Eastern Hemisphere, but which also lacks a presence in the Western cultures is the Auricularia auricula, also known colloquially as the Jew's Ear. The most common method of medicinal practice with this mushroom is actually through simple.

FIGURE 1: Pharmacological effects of the lingzhi mushroom

CHINA & MUSHROOMS (CONT.) consumption. Once cooked, the Auricularia auricula has been observed in treating excessive uterine bleeding and in treating hemorrhoids. Although there is currently no cultivation of this mushroom in the United States, it is known as one of the first artificially cultivated mushrooms in China. Its high content of dietary fibers and its use as an adage to treating uterine pain has made Jew's Ear a natural home remedy for Chinese women in particular.


Another edible mushroom used for both culinary and medicinal purposes is the Shishigashida mushroom, classified as the Hericium erinaceus.

Shishigashida occurs naturally on the oak, walnut and beech trees of both China and Japan and is most well-known for promoting digestion and strength. Acting as a "health food" much like Americans promote kale and protein bars as energy boosters, this Chinese mushroom has cytostatic producing polysaccharides that have effects on hepatic, gastric and skin cancers. Of course, it has not been scientifically proven that mushrooms are the ultimate key to longevity or treasure riches. However, research has analyzed and followed the patterns of the mushroom memorialized within East Asian cultures- with a particular attention to China. The Chinese, though a reputably sharp and searingly logical group of peoples, have an ancient history of adhering particular worth and value to what may be a common household object for Americans.

CHINA & MUSHROOMS (CONT.) For example, during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 20th Century, mangoes quickly became a holy relic after a political statement involving a mango was made by the Chairman Mao.

The lingzhi mushroom is still a prominent feature in the Chinese spiritual landscape. A Han dynasty prose-poem written by Zhang Heng names the lingzhi, "magic mushrooms" depicting these mushrooms as drugs of Immortality for all those who consumed it. The lingzhi mushroom not only appears in the form of song- it lays within the grand structures of Beijing's Forbidden City. Pillars surrounding the entrance to the emperor's throne are gilded with mushrooms of a particular order- none other than the "magical" linghzi. Standing since the year 1406, the presence of lingzhi within the walls of the Forbidden City has stood prominently as a divine protection or the emperor of each dynasty. Sometimes referred to as "xian cao" (fairy-grass) in other parts of the country, the lingzhi mushroom is a favorite among

worshippers of the Buddhist goddess Guanyin. The goddess of healing is often depicted holding the lingzhi mushroom in sculptures and paintings. In a more recent incident involving the great goddess, a cluster of mushrooms grew from the arms and chest of a statue of Guanyin. Chinese newspapers and media heralded it as "a miracle" and "good omen;" prompting thousands of Chinese citizens to flock to the statue's home in Chetouan, Nanjing.

FIGURE 3: Reishi etched onto forbidden city pavilion door Source: Willard, The Forbidden City 1990


FIGURE 4: Mushrooms grow on the statue of goddess guanyin Source:

The humble mushroom can also be found within the traditional Chinese arts as well. In an 18th-century painting portraying Shennong (transl. to The Divine Farmer), the deity is holding a basket full of the lingzhi mushroom, Shennong, as the "Divine Farmer" served as a medium between the divine and the common people- he himself was able to create elixirs of life with the power of the lingzhi. Mushrooms are not just worshipped by those with religious overturesmushrooms appear in more secular contexts throughout China as well. Mushrooms can be found on a Chinese medicine box; along with other traditional symbols of

FIGURE 5: Received as a good omen Source:

longevity such as the lotus and deer. Artist Chen Duo's 17th century-painted fan, titled "Rock, Mushrooms and Paint" depict mushrooms alongside a Chinese scholar's

JAPAN, KOREA & MUSHROOMS rock and evergreen plant- all three of which are meant to coincide as the trio of good fortune.

with the highest amount of total dietary fiber.

China's neighbors to the north, the Japanese and Koreans also have a long-standing history of mushrooms for medicinal and spiritual use. Like the Chinese, mushrooms have embedded themselves into the Japanese and Korean cultures. Originating in Japan, the Maitake mushroom (classified as Grifola Frondosa) has been a point of interest for Japanese scientists within the past ten years. A small, but significant amount of clinical trails have been performed in Japan on the Maitake mushroom and its anti-cancer activity. G. Frondosa contains properties that exhibit anti-obesity, anti-diabetic and anti-HIV activities. The use of the Maitake mushroom has traveled from the East over to the United States, where it is currently used in the treatment of a range of diseases from a common cold to HIV. Figure 6 displays a bar graph of the biological properties of a few of the most commonly used mushrooms originating in East Asia. Maitake accounts for one of the mushrooms

FIGURE 6: Nutrients in Mushrooms with special attention to the maitake mushroom Source: Freedman, Mushroom polysaccharides

Although China makes up the largest percentage of mushroom cultivation and production in the world (see figure below), there are still a few mushrooms native primarily to Japan and Korea, such as the Japanese Meshimakobu mushroom.


FIGURE 7: Global mushroom & truffle production Source: Gro intelligence

The properties of the Meshimakobu mushroom are extracted through hot water boils and have been said to rejuvenate and re-energize people. Acting as a "miracle medicine," researchers have paid special attention to the "awakening" effects of the Meshimakobu mushroom before and after patient cancer treatments. There is currently a large pharmaceutical market for selected strains of this

mushroom in Korea specifically. The Korean New Pharmaceutical Co. is in the process of working with laborities across the globe in finalizing medicinal products that acts in the same way as an energy drink would.

JAPAN, KOREA & MUSHROOMS (CONT.) Perhaps the most well-known mushroom out of Japan is the Shittake mushroom (classified as Lentinus edodes). The Shittake mushroom grows in temperate climates and is popular for its delicious taste, as well as its role in medicine. Western cultures such as the United States has expressed a growing interest in the Shittake mushroom for the past decade- perhaps because it is not only delicious, but it is also one of the most researched and well-studied mushrooms. Researchers have determined two polysaccharides that demonstrate anti-cancer activity within the Shittake mushroom- Lentinan and LEM. Cancer patients and those undergoing chemotherapy in Japan currently use it an immune system support.

The Shittake mushroom has been proven to have behavioral activities that would take dozens of different mushrooms to find. The Shittake mushroom has positive cardiovascular effects, the ability to regulate immune system functions, prevent and inhibit bacterial infections, and even treat the common cold.

The Chinese are not alone in their veneration and celebration of mushrooms. The Japanese, too, have a long history of attaching a spiritual meaning to fungi. The Japanese have a shrine dedicated to mushrooms, named the Kusabira Jinjya. A Japanese priest resides inside this Shinto shrine and there are prayer festivals held throughout the year. The presence of this Shinto shrine highlights the immediate correlation between the spiritual realm and something as small in magnitude as a mushroom. Some feel that the healing powers held within the mushroom can only be unleashed by a divine spirit and some feel that they will become the divine spirit upon consumption of some of the rarest mushrooms.


FIGURE 8: Yayoi Kusama, Mushrooms Source: yayoi kusama, 1995, private collection


More recent artists have also paid homage to the mushroom. World-renowned Yayoi Kusama tapped into the inner-experience of spirituality using psychedelic mushrooms in her 1995 depiction of bright, floating mushrooms. In fact, many of her greatest works and projects have revolved around two things: mushrooms and a trippy, psychedelic feelng. Another award-winning Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami, has centered some of his works around mushrooms (2003, Army of Mushrooms), stating that mushrooms were, "...erotic and cute while evoking.... the fantastic world of fairy tale." The mushroom as a motif in his contemporary work leaves a nostalgic hint of decades old artwork done by artists of olden day China and Japan- where mushrooms were painted onto emperor thrones, and sculptures were built with mushrooms in every mold.

CONCLUSION The question that we come to now is, what does this all mean? What does all this information about medicinal and spiritual mushrooms say about East Asian cultures? Generational tradition is at the heart of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), as well as at the core of medicinal mushroom home remedies within Japan and Korea. For many people, the spoken word is as good a fact as ten years of scientific research. Culture is something that binds us together and creates an identity for who we are. Although small in stature and size, something as simple as a mushroom can be a unifying mark of identity for a whole group of people. A study of mushrooms in East Asian cultures also reveals much about how we as human interact with our surrounding landscape and the sacred connection between spirituality and geography. Thousands of years ago, emperors believed that mushrooms could protect their divinity and would grant them immortality. Today, we believe that mushrooms can keep us healthy and fix life-threatening illnesses.

Although the artwork and poems written back in the age of dynasties seem ancient, its sole center around the mushroom lacks very little in difference to our fascination with mushrooms today. We continue to publish books on mushrooms, we continue to experiment on mushrooms, and we continue to seek to educate ordinary, everyday people on the medicinal and spiritual facets of mushrooms.

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Mushrooms in East Asian Culture  

An exploration of the medicinal & spiritual facets of fungi.

Mushrooms in East Asian Culture  

An exploration of the medicinal & spiritual facets of fungi.