Every time I pass by one of those classic Chinese pharmacies, I can’t help but stop and wonder… And a few months ago, I decided to find out. This is part four in the “Strange TCM” series, following “eating snake for healthier skin,” “eating ants to keep that lustrous hair” and “deer penis will keep you strong“…
Just like the baijiu-soaked deer penis, earthworms are a legendarily royal remedy here in China. They’re not even called worms, but something far more royal: Earth Dragons (地龙).
It all started with Emperor Taizu of the Song Dynasty, who ruled China from 960 to 976. Apparently, he had a wretched case of shingles. All of the royal physicians were baffled and no one could find a cure.
No one, that is, except a simple folk doctor. He plucked a couple of earthworms — sorry, earth *dragons* — from the ground, moistened them with honey and sugar, and left them on a plate to melt in the sun. Gross, I know, but bear with me.
First, the folk doctor wiped the shingles with this dragon balm, and Emperor Taizu discovered cool relief for the first time!
Next, and this is where it gets really nasty, the mad doc made up a bowl of earthworm juice, and fed it to the emperor. And just a few days later, he was completely healed.
“Let these magic creatures be herewith known as Earth Dragons!” the emperor proclaimed. Or something to that effect.
Li Shizhen, the amazing doctor from the 1500s who I’ve written about in earlier sections, was also a firm believer in the earthworm. In his “Compendium of Materia Medica,” he wrote about how the creature can clear internal heat, nourish the lungs and calm asthma, as well as heal aches in joints. And, of course, cure skin problems.
Chloe talked to Dai Wenjuan, a traditional Chinese medicine expert at Shanxi TCM University, who explained that earthworms are still a popular treatment in China. “They can be applied both externally and internally,” she said. “Eating earthworms can treat asthma, swollen joints and rheumatic arthritis. Externally, it will stop allergic skin reactions.”
Yu Fenghai started his first earth dragon farm, Guangxi Bohai Earthworm Cooperative Society, five years ago in a small village in Guangxi. “We churn out 500 kilos of earthworms every day,” he boasted, explaining that his customers were mostly pharmacies and medicine factories.
At a pharmacy, one kilo of dried worms goes for about $14.
Guangxi is a real earthworm hotspot, it turns out. Not only is there wild dragon farming, but also a lot of earthworm eating. Down there, you can find them everywhere: in booze, pancakes, even stir fried with veggies.
A generous man, Farmer Yu even let us in on his favorite recipe of all: Earth Dragon Soup.
Earth Dragon Soup
- 7oz earthworms
- 2oz ginger, smashed
- vegetable oil
- 1T rice wine
- Fry up the earthworms with the ginger in a pan with oil.
- Add the rice wine and 2-1/2 cups of cold water, and let it boil for half an hour.
- Add salt to taste.
I have to admit, I haven’t tried this yet. I haven’t even tried eating worms. (I haven’t been to Guangxi… that’s the only reason… I promise.) But Yu insisted a bowl of this will improve your circulation and soothe any asthma. “And what’s more,” he said, “it tastes nice—even better than pork soup!”
I believe you, Farmer Yu.
Much of this blog post is directly lifted from an article I wrote a few months ago, with research by me and my friend Chloe Chen, and published in my magazine, “The World of Chinese.” You should buy the magazine–subscribe to it, in fact! It’s quite awesome.