The Legend of He Shou Wu

The Legend of He Shou Wu

Li Ao from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) wrote a book called “The Legend of He Shou Wu” documenting in detail its discovery.

Neng Si is the name of the man who is said to have discovered He Shou Wu in China.

“Neng Si was born with a weak constitution. Due to his chronic frailty, he had never been able to marry and as time went by had given up on the prospect of either marrying or bearing children. In addition, he had taken to strong liquor. Nevertheless, he was an enthusiastic follower of Taoism and often shadowed his Taoist teacher in the mountain.

“One day, at the age of 58, he fell into a drunken stupor in the forest. When he awoke, he observed a pair of vines entwined for more than 3 yards. He thought to himself that they appeared to be making love, and in a whimsical mood he dug up the root of the plant, which he took back to his cottage. No one in the local village recognized the herb. A hermit from the mountain saw it, however, and told him, “This climbing plant struck you as peculiar, now surely it is supposed to serve you as a divine tonic. Why don’t you take it”?

“He agreed and ground up the root into powder and swallowed a small amount on an empty stomach. In seven days, he started to “realize the Tao of Muman.” He started to feel an unknown vitality flowing through his veins and after a little while he noticed certain urges starting to develop. Soon this previously hapless guy began to experience something very unfamiliar to him – incredible virility– he could barely control his sexual desire. Over the next several months, he became strong. He decided to continue taking the herb, doubling his dosage. In several years, his hair grew dark again, and his appearance became youthful. Over the next ten years, he fathered several boys and changed his name to Neng Si, meaning “Capable of Bearing Offspring.””

Though the herb called He Shou Wu’s was well famed as an anti-aging tonic and a fertility enhancing sex tonic, it did not gain much attention from the health cultivationists (preservationists) after the He family had made it famous. Revered herbalist Li Shi Zhen, who authored a book named The Great Herbalism (published in 1578), the greatest contribution to the development of Chinese herbal pharmacy, noted that though He Shou Wu had been established for a long while, few people were taking the herb at the time. A royal endorsement from an emperor changed that. Ming Dynasty Emperor Shi Zong (reigned from 1521 to 1566) was gifted an herbal elixir called Seven Treasure Beard Beautifying Pill. He enjoyed “great success,” fathering several royal princes and credited the herbal formula for his success. This formula, with He Shou Wu as the main ingredient, became an instant hit among the commoners and He Shou Wu became a household herb throughout Asia ever since.

Li Ao’s Personal Commentary on He Shou Wu

Li Ao, the Taoist sage who recounted the Legend of He Shou Wu, is famous as the sage whose walk “resembled a swift wind.” He had this to say regarding his personal experience with the herb

He Shou Wu:

“I will reveal to you an herbal secret. Taking He Shou Wu helped me to father children. Originally, I preferred peace of mind, and under no circumstances did I want to take this herb, because I had heard it said that it was ‘harmful to peace of mind’ (referring to its stimulation of sexual desire). However, my spouse took it accidentally and we attained the greatest happiness (the highest level of sexual ecstasy). Since then I have continued taking this miraculous herb.”

The Story of Li Qing Yuen

There is a famous story that has been widely spread about a man named Li Qing Yuen, who, as the tale goes, is said to have lived to be 252 years old. All evidence indicates that this is not possible. Therefore, I believe the story of Li Qing Yuen must be viewed as a legend. Nevertheless, it is widely believed in Asia that Li Qing Yuen did indeed live and that he lived to extended age – certainly to be a centenarian.

The story is worth telling because it expresses the deep interest the Chinese have had in the art of longevity and provides some excellent life lessons. According to the story, Li Qing Yuen was born in  the mountainous southwest of China, he ran away from home at the age of eleven with three travelers. These travelers were in the herbal trade. Together the boy and his three teachers traveled throughout China, Tibet, and Southeast Asia, encountering many dangerous situations, but all the while studying the herbal traditions of all the various regions.

As Li Qing Yuen became older, he became a practicing herbalist, and was well known for his excellence of health and amazing vigor. He was particularly interested in Taoist life cultivation and had a deep personal interest in tonic herbs. One day, when he was around fifty years old, he met a very old man who, despite of his venerable old age, could out-walk Li Qing Yuen. This impressed Master Li very much because he believed that brisk walking was both a way to health and longevity and a sign of inner health. Li Qing Yuen inquired as to the old sage’s secret. He was told that if every day he consumed a “soup” of an herb known as gou qi zi(Lycium chinensis fruit – known to us as Goji berries or Wolfberries) he would soon attain a new standard of health. Of course Li Qing Yuen knew about this Goji but had not made it a central part of his daily herbal regimen. Li Qing Yuen did just what the old sage suggested and continued to consume Goji soup from the time forward.

Because of his radiant health and longevity, he was greatly revered by all those who knew him and he had many disciples who followed him. Even at a very old age, his sight was keen and his legs were strong, and he continued to take his daily vigorous walks. One day, he was on a journey through treacherous mountains. In the mountains he met a Taoist hermit who was much older than him. Impressed by the great illumination of the old Taoist, Li Qing Yuen begged the sage to tell him his secrets. The old Taoist, recognizing the sincerity of Li, taught him some deep secrets of Taoist Yoga (also known as the “Inner Alchemy”) and recommended that Li change his diet and consume Ginseng daily, combined with He Shou Wu.

It is said that Master Li also changed his diet accordingly, so as to consume very little meat, and even limited his consumption of root vegetables. He also limited his consumption of grain. Instead, he focused mainly on steamed above-ground vegetables and herbs. He supposedly died in 1930, reportedly after a banquet presented in his honor by a government official. He had married during his lifetime numerous times and lived through many generations of his own descendants, of which he had many.

Ron’s Note: I first reported on this story in 1984 in the book “Chinese Tonic Herbs (Japan Publications).” However, though I have tried, I have found that primary sources of documentation for Li Qing Yuen’s extreme longevity are non-existent. The story had first been reported, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, in a 1933 news agency filing as “the oldest man on earth”, having been born in 1680 and just died at 253. The Guinness Book first identified him as Li Chung-yun and later as Li Zhongyun (1993 edition). The Guinness Book noted that “Li Chung-yun was said to have maintained a youthful appearance to the end, crediting it to Taoist wisdom and healthy living.”

The story is representative of a tradition that is rich in the lore of Taoists living to ages unimaginable by us. It is well known that among the Chinese population, the Taoists have always far outlived all other people in Asia. Many have lived to be centenarians and few died prematurely. The Taoist art of longevity, known as the “Way of Radiant Health” is one of the great legacies of the East. The Taoist arts of longevity include tonic herbalism, qi gong, tai ji quan, Taoist yoga, Taoist sexual techniques and many of the martial arts.

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