Dragon Boat festival is here again.
Among the many varied traditions of the festival is the consumption of realgar wine (雄黄酒). Although the most common translation of this drink includes the term “wine”, this is a misnomer as the brew tends to be a concoction of hard liquor huangjiu (黄酒) mixed with the realgar powder, and has nothing to do with what Westerners would consider to be “wine”.
Children, too, get in on the act, but not by drinking booze—the character for “king” (王) is drawn on their foreheads using paint made from realgar: usually it’s the leftover slurry, literally from the bottom of the barrel (of booze).
Realgar was traditionally believed to be an antidote against not just poison, but also disease and evil spirits. While the realgar wine wikipedia page points out that usage is decreasing along with knowledge of its toxicity, it doesn’t always seem that way. Here, for example, is a recent media report of students in Hangzhou taking an excuse to dress up as zongzi dumplings (and bare some skin) while taking a shot of realgar wine in what is supposed to be a ceremony showing that the couples will stay together. Plenty of media reports fail to mention its toxicity entirely.
Realgar wine was traditionally drunk at the height of summer, during the Dragon Boat festival, as this was said to be the right time of year according to the laws of yin and yang. Some also say that when the famed poet (and source of many Dragon Boat festival traditions) Qu Yuan jumped into the river to commit suicide, someone poured a bottle of realgar wine into the river and out came a dead dragon, so it warded off evil.
So what exactly is realgar?
Brace yourself for it: realgar is an arsenic sulfide mineral. Yes, you read that correctly, it is a compound that includes the hideously poisonous chemical element arsenic, but before you start to panic, it’s important to keep in mind that just because the mineral contains arsenic doesn’t make it poisonous in the same way. On the other hand, it still seems pretty risky to ingest, so let’s take stock of what we know about it and see what we can deduce—and see whether this is one cultural tradition that China really should leave by the wayside.
Strike one: It was traditionally used as a pesticide
Realgar was first recognized as a way to keep away bad things, including pests. This is basically why realgar wine is drunk during summer—by drinking pesticide, as the belief goes, you could keep away pests like mosquitos or snakes. Even the legend said that by pouring realgar into the river where Qu Yuan was drowning and being eaten by river creatures, the realgar wine caused the dead bodies of pests to float to the surface of the river.
One might linger on why this was effective at keeping pests away and realize that if, indeed, the basis for drinking realgar wine is because it was capable of killing these poisonous animals, then it’s quite likely it’s just as toxic to people. Or, put more simply, if you pour something into a river and everything dies, you probably shouldn’t drink that. Evidently, understanding that it was a pesticide, they figured they could build up a resistance to poisons, much like an anti-venom treatment. But there doesn’t seem to be much scientific basis for thinking that drinking this poison would help.
Strike two: scientific studies indicate researchers are worried
Ok, so first the good news: realgar is not easily absorbed into the body (at least compared to other things with arsenic) and some studies (which had nothing to say about any potential benefits) on rats found that provided you keep the quantities low enough (as low as 10 milligrams per day for an adult’s prolonged use), the level of toxicity does not show up in urine.
And while realgar is occasionally used in some very specific anti-cancer treatments, as expressed by the US government National Center for Biotechnology Information here, the same report also pointed out: “Realgar is frequently included as an ingredient in oral traditional remedies for its antipyretic, antiinflammatory, antiulcer, anticonvulsive and anti-schistosmiasis actions, but the pharmacological basis for this inclusion still remains to be fully justified.”
Which basically means that people take it for these reasons, but that particular jury of scientists is still out on whether those treatments actually work.
On the other hand, these scientists, also published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, looked specifically at the health risks of realgar. After pointing out the toxicity of realgar, it states:
“Despite the long history of realgar use during the DBF, associated risk to human health by arsenic ingestion or percutaneous adsorption is unknown.” As such, they took urine samples from people drinking realgar wine, to test for arsenic quantities and figure out absorption rates.
What they found was:
“However, even when arsenic concentrations in the urine peaked at 40 h after paint application, concentrations in the urine only declined slightly thereafter, suggesting pronounced longer term dermal accumulation and penetration of arsenic. Drinking wines blended with realgar or using realgar based paints on children does result in the significant absorption of arsenic and therefore presents a potentially serious and currently unquantified health risk.”
So basically, it is definitely dangerous at higher quantities, we don’t really know the benefits at lower quantities, and have no idea how bad the health risk is overall, but it’s “potentially serious”.
Strike three: it often comes with other forms of arsenic
Other papers have found that even though realgar itself may have low solubility and absorption into the blood, it often seems to come together with other forms of arsenic.
And what ought to be particularly concerning to parents, is that when it does, it can be absorbed through the skin. This puts that practice of painting it on children’s foreheads in a dark light.
So in conclusion?
While this area still needs more research, there is enough scientific information out there to indicate that drinking realgar wine or using realgar paint on kids can have very serious consequences, so maybe, until the science is in, this is one tradition you shouldn’t partake in.
Cover image from news.163.com