Cold food powder, cold mineral powder, five-mineral powder, han-shih, han-shih san, han-shi powder, medicinal powder made from the five minerals, wu-shi
The Chinese politician He Yan (in office 240–249 C.E.) was one of the most important philosophers of the Wei dynasty. After trying the han-shi powder, he reported enthusiastically, “When one takes the five mineral powder, not only are diseases cured, but the mind is awakened and opened to clarity” (in Wagner 1981, 321).
The purported inventor or discoverer of the drug, Huangfu Mi (215–282 C.E.), commented:
In recent times, He Yan has devoted his time to music and esteemed sex, and when he took the drug for the first time, he attained an additional clarity of consciousness, and his physical strength gradually grew stronger. [Because of this], everyone was soon passing the drug around in the capital city. . . . After his death, the number of those who took it grew even larger, and this did not change over time. (In Wagner 1981, 321)
The poet Su Shi (1036–1101) listed the main ingredients of the drug:
It began with He Yan, that the people took stalactites with aconite and uninhibitedly abandoned themselves to wine [= sake] and sex in order to extend their lives. In his youth, He Yan was rich and respected, why should it be such a surprise that he took the han-shi powder in order to satisfy his desires? (In Wagner 1981, 321)
Although there is some connection between the efficacious powder and the recipes of Taoist alchemy, han-shi was used chiefly as an agent of pleasure (Strickman 1979, 168). It was generously consumed in circles that were already interested in inebriants:
From the Wei period on [after 220 C.E.], one encounters wine [pressed from grapes] in a totally new context. It was consumed by the feudal class with a consciousness-expanding and potency-promoting drug—the han-shi powder. According to the instructions of the inventor Huang-fu Mi, the drug needed to be taken with hot, high-quality wine in order for its effects to be released. The literature of the time contains various reports of wine societies, which were actually drug parties. The combined effects of wine and drugs sometimes caused things to get out of control. For example, it was said that the wealthy Shi Ch’ung would use so-called beautiful women to encourage his guests to drink wine at his banquets. In the event the guest did not drink to complete excess, the woman would be executed. (Majlis 1981, 318)
Stalactites in a limestone cave; since ancient times, stalactites have been used in traditional Chinese medicine to strengthen yang and to move chi ( = life energy) in the lower abdomen. (Woodcut from Ben cao gang mu, 1596)
The Chinese drug called fu tzu is made from the roots of different species of monkshood (Aconitum spp.). It was once an important ingredient in the psychoactive han-shi powder.
Many han-shi consumers—and not only Taoists and/or alchemists—also experimented with such other drugs as sake, wine, brandy (alcohol), and psychoactive mushrooms (Wagner 1973; Wagner 1981, 322; cf. Strickman 1979 and Cooper 1984, 23, 54, 62*). Unfortunately, we do not yet know the identity of these psychoactive mushrooms (cf. “Polyporus mysticus”). It also appears that the hanshi powder was often used in the context of Taoist sexual practices and sexual magic exercises.
Yü Chia-hsi (1938) has conducted research into the recipe or recipes for making han-shi powder, but only imprecise details are known:
The recipe for the drug is known. In addition to various ingredients containing calcium (stalactites [é guan shí], oyster shells [mu lì], both ground) and numerous herbs, it contains above all the poisonous aconite. Unfortunately, no pharmacologist has studied this complex drug to date, so that we provide no information about experiments or theoretical effects. (Wagner 1981, 321)
Unfortunately, Yü Chia-hsi did not indicate whether the é guan shí (literally “gooseneck stones” = stalactites) and oyster shells (most likely Crassostrea gigas [Thunberg 1793])418 were pulverized or burned/slaked. But it seems likely that this was a slaked lime, for the recipes for all known psychoactive products that are mixed with lime require slaked lime (i.e., calcium hydroxide); cf. Areca catechu, Erythroxylum coca, Nicotiana tabacum, and betel quids. In addition to stalactites, Shen Kuo names an additional plant ingredient: Atractylodes macrocephala Koidz. (cf. sake). He considers the effects of the powder to be a product of synergistic interactions between its components:
When a person ingests many minerals in one medicine, then the minerals must be able to work in synergy, and when in addition a person further stimulates them with medicinal plants, then the effect must be very strong. Thus, when the powder of the five minerals is combined with different medicinal plants, one should use only an extremely small amount of mineral powder, for one must produce the effects with only small amounts of additives. (Shen Kuo 1997, 127 f.*)
Shen Kuo then mentions Sun Simajao, who claimed that poison sumac (Rhus toxicondendron L. [syn Toxicondendron quercifolium (Michx.) Greene]) and kudzu vine (Pueraria lobata [Willd.] Ohwi [syn. Dolichos lobatus Willd., Pueraria thunbergiana (Sieb. et Zucc.) Benth., Pueraria hirsuta (Thunb.) Scheid. non Kurz]) were effective substitutes for the dangerous five mineral powder (Shen Kuo 1997, 129*).
Aconite is the only psychoactive ingredient (cf. Aconitum spp.) known to be present in the powder. It is possible that it reacts with the lime and the other herbs in a synergistic manner, although Su Shi claims that the other plants are not significant. In addition, the inebriating effects of alcohol, which was used as a carrier substance, should not be underestimated or forgotten.
It would be truly interesting to reconstruct the recipes and perform pharmacological tests on humans with them. However, caution is advised, for the Chinese literature also contains descriptions of unpleasant side effects, emaciation resulting from chronic use, and death from overdose (Wagner 1981, 322 f.).
Mailis, Brigitte. 1981. Alkoholische Getränke im Alten China. In Rausch und Realität, ed. G. Völger, 1: 314–19. Cologne: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde.
Needham, Joseph, and He Ping-Yü. 1959. Elixir poisoning in mediaeval China. Janus 48.
Strickman, Michel. 1979. On the alchemy of T’ao Hung-ching. In Facets in Taoism, ed. Holmes Welch and Anna Seidel, 123–92. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Wagner, Rudolf G. 1973. Lebensstil und Drogen im chinesischen Mittelalter. T ’oung Pao 59:79–178.
———. 1981. Das Han-shi Pulver—eine “moderne” Droge im mittelalterlichen China. In Rausch und Realität, ed. G. Völger, 1:320–23. Cologne: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde.
Yü Chia-hsi. 1938. Han-shih san k’ao. In Fu-jen hsüeh-chih 7:29–63. (In Chinese.)
“That is the divine powder, with which one holds onto life.”
IN “DAS HAN-SHI PULVER” [ “THE HAN-SHI POWDER”]
(WAGNER 1981, 323)