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What’s Your Poison

A brief history of death by poison


If you want someone dead but don’t want to get caught, poison is the way to go. Or, maybe you just want someone to die painfully and slowly—again, poison’s the way to go. The world recently watched King Joffrey Baratheon’s poisonous death via a poison known as The Strangler on HBO’s Game of Thrones, but China has long had its own legendary poisons to dish out; a chapter on poisoning in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) book Instructions to Coroners (《洗冤录》) by Song Ci (宋慈), the founding father of forensic science in China, begins, “For those who die of poisoning, their orifices open, their face turns greenish black or green, their lips go purplish green, their nails appear dark green, and blood spews out of their mouth, eyes, ears, and nose.” A grim fate indeed.

Masters of conspiracy, assassins, and usurpers, the ancient Chinese excelled in the discovery, use, and cure of poisons, some familiar to us today and some with names that chill the blood, including lethal poisons such as arsenic (砒霜), intestine-rupturing herb (断肠草), crane’s red-crown (鹤顶红), and three-laugh death powder (三笑逍遥散).

Arsenic, the king of poisons, is perhaps one of the few toxins that transcend time, national borders, and social class. A favorite of the Romans and Europeans in the middle ages, arsenic was a classic in ancient China as well. It was the poison of choice when the famous wanton Pan Jinlian (潘金莲) and her adulterer decided to murder her husband in the Outlaws of the Marsh. It also brought death to China’s penultimate emperor Guangxu (光绪帝), though the cause of death was not confirmed until 2008, 100 years after the emperor’s face turned blue at the age of 37. To this day, the murderer of Guangxu remains somewhat of a mystery; arsenic is colorless, odorless, tasteless, and is difficult to detect.

Throughout Chinese history, as often depicted on TV shows, the Chinese believed in a not-so-foolproof method to test for poisoning, involving the poking of a silver needle into food, drinks, or bodies. As Song Ci instructs: “To confirm that poisoning has taken place, a silver needle that has been scrubbed in soapy water should be stuck into the victim’s mouth. If the needle turns a blackish color that cannot be washed off, then poisoning can be confirmed.” However, modern science tells a different story. It appears that the only reason the silver needle worked occasionally with arsenic was due to the crude methods used to make arsenic; sulfide commonly existed alongside arsenic minerals in nature, which can turn silver black.

Aside from minerals, plants were readily available as alternatives. Given the Chinese’s obsession with and knowledge of herbal medicine, the appropriation of herbs as secret weapons is easy to understand. Shengnong (神农)—the ancestor and legendary ruler of pre-dynastic China, discoverer of different qualities of herbs, and the  father of Chinese medicine—died of the toxic intestine-rupturing herb. Although it sounds like a specific type of plant, it is, in fact, the name used for a variety of lethal plants from different parts of China.

In some surprising. mythical cases, poison can cure as well as kill. One of most well-known examples of “counteracting one poison with another” (以毒攻毒) is perhaps an incident in the wuxia novel Legend of Condor Hero by Jin Yong, where the datura poisoned protagonist was saved by taking a horrifying and lethal intestine-rupturing herb.

Among the many bloodcurdling varieties of the “intestine-rupturing” family, one of the most toxic is hemlock (钩吻, gelsemium elegans). In 2011, a Chinese local official murdered a deputy of the National People’s Congress by putting this legendary poison in the man’s hot pot. In the beginning, the victim feels a burning in the throat, followed by vomiting and excruciating pain in the abdomen. Eventually, victims die of respiratory failure.

见血封喉, literally “meets blood and seals throat”, is another infamous poison and comes from the all too aptly named antiaris toxicaria tree. Once used on arrowheads, when the poison meets an open wound or blood, it brings nearly instant death. Found in Yunnan and Hainan provinces, local Yunnan people describe its effect as “whoever’s infected with the poison can only take seven steps forward or eight steps back before death” (七上八下九倒地).

But, poison isn’t just for traitors and schemers, it was also used as a “gift death” (赐死), in euthanasia, or to protect the honor of the soon-to-be deceased. One famous example is “China’s Nostradamus”, Liu Bowen (刘伯温), who was rumored to have been given a cup of poison wine from the founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Deemed a respectful way to die and a gift from the emperor; the doomed high-ranking official or concubine would be offered either the rope with which to hang themselves, the dagger with which to stab themselves, or a nice cup of poisonous wine. As the Chinese saying goes: If his majesty wants my death, I have to die (君要臣死,臣不得不死).” The toxic contents of the imperial poisonous wine were usually, according to legend, the crane’s red crown, poison-feather bird zhen (鸩), or arsenic.

Many now believe that crane’s red crown was merely a euphemism for arsenic, whereas the mythical poison of the zhen is pretty obviously an invention of Chinese legend. Described in the Classic of Mountains and Seas (《山海经》), the zhen was a purple and green bird the size of a falcon fed on the heads of venomous snakes. Often referenced in myths, poetry, and literature, the word 鸩 later became synonymous with poison, as merely dipping its feathers in any liquor guaranteed the drinker’s death. Ancient texts record that these birds were hunted down and killed because the usage of zhen poison was too widespread and cruel.

Other bewildering poisons, whose fame became widespread thanks to wuxia novels and TV shows, result in a cacophony of incredible symptoms. The three-laugh death powder, for instance, is rumored to be undetectable, and the victim dies after giving an eerie, sardonic grin three times. The legendary body-melting powder (化尸粉) works much like sulfuric acid, melting the body and clothes. However, even if these fantastical murder potions existed, their recipes have long since disappeared.

The zhen birds may be mythical (or extinct), but arsenic, poison hemlock, and even nerium oleander passed through history and into legendary fame, ensuring many a horrifying death. It may not be as common as it once was, but be nice while you’re in China or you could end up part of China’s poison past.

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