Posted by: Green Knight | July 20, 2012

Dragon Boats and stuff that floats

I have always been a fan of things Chinese. I grew up in and near San Francisco, and Chinatown was a magical experience every time. I can stir-fry a mean cashew chicken, or tempeh for my veggie friends, in my industrial-sized wok. I’ve been studying the Tao and Ch’an since I was a freshman in high school. I’ve studied kung-fu, or wushu, whatever you want to call it, at a couple of different schools. I worked as the inventory-control and purchasing guy at a wholesale Chinese art-materials warehouse in SF. I study the calligraphy, although — even though I’m not a bad artist — I can’t draw the characters convincingly at all. I have a friend who’s about as Irish-American as you can get, but speaks fluent Mandarin/Pinyin (doesn’t read the script, though). I know enough Cantonese to get in trouble at a bar.

A month ago it was the Dragon Boat  or Duanwu festival, and I was looking up stuff about it. The 5th day of the 5th lunisolar month, sort of a summer solstice event. I knew about racing the dragon boats, but hadn’t known about the “realgar wine,” or painting designs on your kids’ foreheads and arms with the dregs of it. I’ve done a lot of reading on alchemy, so realgar sounded familiar, and “orpiment” also suggested itself to me, in my hindbrain, as an associated thing. All very Tolkienesque mineral names; just needs chalcedony in there to complete it.

Sure enough, realgar and orpiment are both minerals that contain ARSENIC. In Chinese alchemy and astrology, sometimes the “lucky color” of something takes priority over whether it’s poisonous. The famous Taoist “immortality pill” contained mercury, which will kill ya quick, or “chop-chop,” if I wanted to be a culturalist asshole. Immortality pill with poison in it, great thinkin’. Realgar, or one form of arsenic sulfide, happens to be a mineral with a really nice red color, the color of luck and good fortune. During the dragon-boat festival, people drink this “realgar wine,” with powdered realgar in it to lend it that lucky red color, sometimes even out of cups made from realgar, and they paint lucky designs on their kids’ foreheads and arms with the dregs. Everybody’s pee turns up hot for arsenic later. Check out the data at

Chinese herbal medicine works fine; I have friends who are cancer patients who use it and get good results. Ginseng, fo ti tieng, all good stuff, although if you ever do golden seal, take it as capsules; the tea tastes FOUL. Acupuncture and acupressure work too, although Western medicine can’t explain why (but they still use it). The “meridians” and pressure points are the same ones used in kung-fu for dealing deadly or incapacitating blows. Good or bad, depends on the application.

Where I really have problems with China is in animal treatment. I’m not a vegan, nor a vegetarian, and most of their dishes don’t contain a lot of meat, just enough for flavor or texture (but they DO eat anything that doesn’t get out of their way fast enough.) I object to them being big in the fur industry in the worst way. I wear leather, and fur if it goes with my Renaissance Faire costume, but I’m not for skinning animals alive. I’m also not for wiping out endangered species like tigers or rhinoceri for their supposed “aphrodisiac” properties, especially in one of the most overpopulated countries on the planet. As I always ask my students, DOES THAT MAKE SENSE?

[also, if you’ve ever read “1421” by Gavin Menzies, the Chinese explorers under Zheng He who discovered the Americas were smoking native tobacco in carved pipes of serpentine, the parent rock of  the most common form of asbestos…bad combination.)


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