In recent years, the obscure mushroom known as chaga has become popular worldwide due to its bevy of beneficial effects. Traditionally harvested in the northernmost extremes of the world and used as a folk remedy by generations of Alaskans and Siberians, chaga is known for its anti-cancer properties, its ability to slow the aging process, its immune-boosting properties, and much more.
While chaga has only recently gained the attention of scientists, it has been used as a traditional healing herb in Asia and North America for years. In particular, chaga has held a treasured place in traditional Chinese medicine, where it is known as the “King of Herbs” due to its wide array of uses. Read on to learn about chaga’s role in Chinese culture.
Chaga and Chinese Medicine
In contrast to the West, the Chinese have a long tradition of using mushrooms for medicinal purpose. One of the most famous Chinese medical mushrooms is cordyceps, a stalk-like fungus that grows on the bodies of caterpillars found in the Chinese mountains. While it was native Siberians who first began using chaga as a folk remedy, trade connections and word of mouth lead to the Chinese and other East Asians adopting the mushroom by 1000 B.C.
While little is known of how chaga entered into Chinese culture, it is known that by 1000 B.C.E, it had already acquired a sacred place in the Chinese medical tradition. In traditional Chinese folklore, chaga was thought to balance the body’s chi, or life energy, leading to greater overall wellness. The Shennong Ben Cao Jing, an agricultural and horticultural manual compiled between 200 and 250 C.E., was where chaga first acquired its “King of Herbs” moniker.
The use of chaga continued to spread through Eurasia in the following centuries, aided by hunters, gatherers, and traders who used the mushroom to keep up their energy levels during long trips. The Ainu people of Hokkaido, one of Japan’s northernmost islands, were inspired by Chinese medicine to begin drinking chaga tea themselves. Word of mouth led to chaga reaching Eastern European during the Middle Ages, where it was rapidly adopted by Kievan Rus’, the forerunner state to modern-day Russia.
The invasions of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire helped chaga spread even further. The conquests of the Mongols helped link Asia and Europe in ways that had never been possible before, and Chinese medical secrets were part of this cultural exchange. Word of chaga’s miracle-like properties spread as far as the Baltic Sea and other parts of Eurasia.
Due to the world’s largest reserves of chaga being located in Siberia, it has been Russia that has historically led research into and promotion of chaga. However, chaga remained a staple herb of Chinese medicine until the 20th century. Chaga fell into disfavor following the establishment of the communist People’s Republic of China due to how the government radically changed Chinese culture.
In recent years, ancient Chinese medicinal secrets have seen a revival in China, with chaga chief among them. Interest in chaga in the West has driven interest in China, as the increasing wealth of the Chinese people has turned them on to new ways of living. Interest in health supplements has also driven renewed interest in chaga on the part of the Chinese.
Currently in China and other East Asian countries, chaga is a common remedy for inflammation, illness, and cancer. Cancer researchers have noted that cancer rates in chaga-consuming regions of the world are considerably lower than the world average, and have attributed this to the anti-cancer properties of chaga’s antioxidant content. It is clear that chaga will continue to grow in popularity in both China and the West at large because few if any foods can match its sheer bevy of positive effects.
Chaga’s long pedigree in the medicinal traditions of many different peoples is a testament to its value as a superfood. In particular, the Chinese were among the first peoples to recognize the sheer importance of chaga. Ancient Chinese medicine saw chaga as an integral part of balancing the body’s energy and warding off disease, an observation that holds true to the present day as scientists continue to plumb the mysteries of this mushroom.
If you are curious about the medicinal benefits of chaga, its long history in Chinese medicine should convince you. Along with cordyceps and other fungi, the Chinese have long been world leaders in cataloguing the nutritional value of mushrooms. Whether you are looking to prevent disease, heal yourself of an infection, combat cancer, reduce inflammation, improve your digestive health, or any number of other goals, chaga can help you live a more healthy and fulfilling life. In a hectic world that promotes unhealthy, sedentary lifestyles, a little wisdom from ancient Chinese medicine can go a long way towards restoring balance.