Dong’e Ejiao Tribute Displayed in the Palace
Dong'e Ejiao, a medicine made from donkey- hide in Shandong Province and formerly an imperial tribute, is currently on exhibit at the Palace Museum.
The Expo of Selected Imperial Traditional Chinese Medicine Culture, an exhibition jointly hosted by the Palace Museum and China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine, is now going on in Yongshou Gong (Palace of Eternal Longevity) in the Palace Museum. It marks the return of eight representative traditional Chinese medicines for imperial use to the Forbidden City, including Dong'e Ejiao (donkeyhide gelatine produced in Dong'e County of Shandong Province) and Hongmao Medicated Wine. This is more a declaration of the intangible cultural heritages' return to the historical stage than an exhibition of traditional Chinese culture.
Ejiao, a Fate Changer for Cixi
Imperial medicine is a combination of wisdom of numerous traditional Chinese medicine elites, deservedly the peak of medicine in Chinese history, and plays an important part in the treasure house of traditional Chinese medicines. Ejiao, one of the imperial medicines, found its way into the imperial palace as early as the Northern Wei Dynasty (AD 386–534). According to Shui Jing Zhu (Commentary on the Waterways Classic) by geographer Li Daoyuan, gelatine boiled yearly as imperial tribute was named ejiao by Bencaogangmu (Compendium of Materia Medica). Later, in each of the following dynasties including the Sui (AD 581–618), Tang (AD 581–618), Song (AD 960–1279), Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644– 1911), it was paid as a tribute to the imperial palace from generation to generation. In the Qing Dynasty in particular, it caught the eyes of the nation and helped one woman—empress Dowager Cixi (Regency: 1861–1908)—establish a legendary cause.
It is said that Emperor Xianfeng (reign: 1851–1862) had no son at an old age. Though Concubine Yi, later Empress Dowager Cixi, was pregnant, she was in danger of having a miscarriage out of a threatened abortion (vaginal bleeding) despite treatment by imperial physicians. At that time, an official from Shandong Province named Chen Zonggui contributed ejiao produced in Dong'e County to the emperor, after the use of which Cixi recovered and gave birth to a baby boy who, as Emperor Xianfeng's first son, later became the new leader of the country— Emperor Tongzhi (reign: 1862–1874). Emperor Xianfeng was so pleased that he officially named ejiao produced in Dong'e, Shandong, as “Dong'e Ejiao for Tribute”.
Dong'e Ejiao for Tribute was favoured by royal families and aristocrats for its fragility, excellent ingredients, processing and effect. In the tenth year of Emperor Tongzhi's reign (1862–1874), the emperor dispatched officials to Dong'e to supervise the production of ejiao for imperial use. Afterwards, the tribute ejiao for nine dynasties was always on Empress Dowager Cixi's list of necessities for preserving health and beauty.
From Palace to Intangible Cultural Heritage
As a medicine for nourishing yin (blood and body fluids) and moistening with a sweet
flavour and mild effect, ejiao can compensate for loss of body fluids in hot summers. It serves as an effective cure helping one to spend a scorching summer as it not only nourishes the blood, reinforces energy, but also calms nerves. Hot summers usually hurt one's yin and easily causes dryness in the lungs, while ejiao is a perfect solution to these problems, ideal for treating health in summertime. For the weak in need of health care, ejiao is the best choice.
With Dong'e Ejiao come wisdom and effort of numerous skill makers accumulated over thousands of years. Production methods of ejiao have been passed down from masters to apprentices since long ago, and to develop them further, they must be preserved and handed down. It is a serious topic regarding the restoration of ejiao as an intangible cultural heritage item. Luckily, ejiao is recorded in such classics as Commentary on the Waterways Classic and Compendium of Materia Medica. It was used mostly as tribute to the imperial palace in different dynasties, also recorded in history books like Dong'e Xianzhi (Annals of Dong'e), Tongdian (lit: “Comprehensive Institutions”, a Chinese institutional history and encyclopaedic text) and Songshi: Dili Zhi (Monograph on Geography of the History of Song Dynasty). Moreover, clues of folk ejiao production techniques are also traceable.
So far, production techniques of Dong'e Ejiao have been listed among the first group of national intangible cultural heritage, and Qin Yufeng, as the eighth-generation inheritor of the technique, has been recognised as a representative inheritor of national intangible cultural heritage. Under the principle of “bold development and prudent creation”, Dong'e Ejiao is being manufactured with a state-level secret formula, traditional techniques and modern technologies.
Tribute for Nine Dynasties
Different from ordinary ejiao products, the Dong'e Ejiao at this exhibition was once served as tribute in nine dynasties. This exhibition witnesses its first return after ancient imperial ejiao making methods, lost for around a century, and were restored in 2007. Ejiao's production for nine dynasties adopts an ancient and refined process, complies with the following philosophy: balance between yin and yang (organs and vitality), regulation between water and fire, and harmony between man and nature, as well as absorbing the fruit of ancient Chinese alchemy's research on tools, timing and will power. In fact, the tribute ejiao for nine dynasties presented at this exhibition is the very best product made with the traditional method by Qin Yufeng—the only inheritor of ejiao production methods and one of six veteran workers in gelatine boiling.
Ingredients for ejiao for nine dynasties are donkey hides and unique water of Dong'e. The processing of ejiao is very demanding: A donkey is skinned on the Winter Solstice, and water is drawn between 11:00 p.m. and 01:00 a.m. the next morning. After 99 processes including boiling the donkey hides in a golden pot put over mulberry wood fire and stirred with silver-made spatulas, the treasurable ejiao is finally done. The whole process takes about nine days and nights. So far a systematic and unique set of traditional ejiao production techniques took form, owing to hundreds of years of practice. Thanks to these ancient techniques, the tribute ejiao for nine dynasties can be considered a delicate work of art as it looks transparent like amber, black and glossy like paint, and is hard and crisp, with a smooth and glossy cross section. Each piece of such ejiao represents traditional Chinese culture. It is the brand-new presence of such an “art work” that marks the precious treasure's reappearance once exclusively for imperial use.
Popularisation of Imperial Medicine
From profound traditional Chinese culture carried in the traditional Chinese medicine—the tribute ejiao for nine dynasties, it is clearly seen that Chinese ideas centre on connecting human health and nature over the past several thousand years. Traditional ejiao production is very strict with its ingredients and processing, a reflection of Chinese traditional health-preserving culture and a carrier of ejiao makers' craftsmanship.
As a concentrated essence of Chinese health-preserving culture, the tribute ejiao for nine dynasties has become an “envoy of cultural exchange and spread” that symbolises health and traditional Chinese culture. As a medicine once for imperial use only, today ejiao's halo has been removed, being inherited and developed as an intangible cultural heritage item in the medical field. In a new era, it continues serving patients and commoners alike.