Insects in Chinese Culture

-Zachary Huang

1. Sericulture (Lepidoptera: Bombycidae: Bombyx mori)

Sericulture is an invention by ancient Chinese people. It started about 5,200 years ago according to archaeological findings. The most commonly used silkworm is Bombyx mori, which is presumably derived through long-term artificial selection from Bombyx mandarina. Silkworms were reared indoors at least during the Zhou Dynasty (about 700 B.C.). This can be inferred from ancient poems written during that period.

Ancient Chinese also had much knowledge about silkworm biology. In the county records of Yong-jia in southern Zhejiang Province in 4th century AD, a method was described to rear silkworm for 8 generations a year by keeping the eggs and in low temperature to avoid diapause in the next generation.

Sericulture in China had great influence on international trade and cultural communication. Silkworm strain and rearing technique were transmitted to the Korean peninsular at the 11th century BC, and to Japan during 5-3rd century BC. Silk Road refers to the route from China to middle East via which silk was transported commercially and the technique of sericulture was also transmitted between 138 to 126 B.C. The ancient Chinese capital Chang-an (now Xi'an) was known as the silk city to the Westerners at the time. Silk routes also existed in south from Sichuan to Burma and India. Silk worm rearing was introduced to Europe in the 6th century A.D.

Silk is still a high class material for ties, clothing, etc. Usually the beddings has to be all silk when a couple gets married. Silk embroidery is also an important skill traditionally.

Other silkworms:
Tussah silkworm: Antherea pernyi. Used as tribute to emperor 2700 years ago. Food: toothed oak (Quercus acutissima).
Cynthia silkworm: Samia cynthia pryeri.
Giant silkworm: Eriogyna pyretorum.
There are also seven other less important insects used for their silk.

2. Bees

Beekeeping in China has a history of more than three thousand years. Oracle inscription of bee swarming was found in Shang Dynasty (11 century BC). King of Zhouwu had a “bee flag” when leading forces to publish King of Zhou of Yin Dynasty. The earliest account of beekeeping (Apis cerana) was published in the 3rd century.

Beeswax was used in traditional medicine as early as the Han Dynasty (200 BC), and used for candles, wax pills and sculptures in the Tang Dynasty (1200 years ago). Beeswax was and is still used in the traditional dying of cloth -- batik. A pattern is first drawn and covered with wax, then dyed, and when wax is removed by boiling in hot water, the wax-covered area will appear to be the original color (usually white), and the dyed area usually blue to green. Beeswax is also used to make a sculpture, covered with clay, the wax is then melted away and replaced with melted metal. This process is called the lost wax process.

3. Wax insects

The earliest record of rearing insect for wax (Coccos pella, named by Frenchman Chavannes as a new species in 1848) was found in the Song Dynasty (11th century). The species name pella is the transliteration of Chinese beila, meaning white wax. N. Trigault, a Christian missionary was the first European to know about wax insect in China (1651). In 1853, W. Lockhat brought wax and insects from Shanghai to England for study.

Shellac is the secretion of the lac insect (Tachardia lacca). The earliest record of lac is found in Wu Lu (268-289 AD). Shellac is used as medicine for curing various blood diseases. It is also used for dying silk objects, leather or ornaments and used rouge, lipstick, lacquer and glue.

4. Insect as medicine

There were 21 insects described as medicine in Shennong Pharmacopoeia (100-200AD). This was expanded to 73 insects in Compendium Materia Media published in 1578. I will only introduce some very common ones and ones that I had experience with.

Chinese galls (Wubeizi) are perhaps the most common insect-related medicine, used for many sores (Tinea, etc). They are produced by gall- making aphid (Pemphigidae) on Chinese sumac (Anacradiaceae: Rhus). Although some people nowadays do not realize the insect component because it has a name emphasizing the plant part, people long time ago knew the insect-plant connection. In Tai Ping Guang Ji (Copious Record in Taiping Region Period, 980 AD), Li Fang observed that "in the Xia Mountains and the region of Sichuan there is a species of insects... they dwell upon the leaves of Chinese sumac, in spring they oviposit and roll the leaves around to form their nests which are as big as peaches or plums. The nests are called Chinese gallnuts and can be used as a good cure for all serious sores. Collectors usually dry and kill them to keep within the leaves, otherwise, they will slip away through the chinks". (Chou Io, 1990).

The most expensive one is probably Dong Chong Tsia Tsiao (winter caterpillar summer grass). The caterpillar fungus consists of larvae of Hepialus armoricanus (Lepidoptera: Hepialidae) infected with an obligate entomopathogenic fungus Cordyceps sinensis (Clavicipitales, Ascomycotina). The wholesale price is about $700/kilo in China (Steinkraus and Whitefield, 1994). I believe that there are now artificially cultured caterpillar fungus whereby caterpillars are reared and then inoculated with the fungus spores. The pharmacological properties of the caterpillar fungus are similar to these of gingseng. A Chinese medicine book says they are mainly used for weak lungs, coughing and shortness of breath, weak kidney, back pain, impotence etc.

Other common insect-related medicines are egg cases of praying mantis and blister beetles. When I was young, I used to collect cicada exuvia from trees, and sell them for about 2 cents (Chinese, exchange ratio unknown at that time, but probably like 3:1 to US currency) to the local pharmacy (where one could both buy Chinese herbs and also sell them). The cicada molts are supposedly good for scrofula and ulcer. Silkworm frass is also used as a medicine for diarrhea, when I was rearing silkworm as a hobby (when I was about 5-6), I used to collect the frass and trade for a few cents at the local pharmacy. Another time I took in a centipede, which was alive for quite a few days while being dried on the wall with a bamboo stick forming a bow like structure (one side inserted into the head, the other side into the last segment, therefore the centipede was stretched due to the tension and cannot escape). I remember it was worth 10 cents, but I got quite a few sleepless nights when another boy kept reminding me that the centipede was capable of revenge when the time became right (after reincarnation into another life ? I did not know). This last time I was in China (September 1993), I got a kidney stone and had great pain. The doctor told me I had a weak kidney and prescribed 10 (!) centipedes ground with some other herbs. Perhaps due to my childhood experience I still viewed them with awe and did not take that particular prescription.

A cockroach (Eupolyphaga sinesis) is also used as a medicine. It is supposed to help stop bleeding and heal bone fractures, swelling etc. I remember one time my maternal uncle came to our house looking for a roach (must be an emergency: otherwise he could have got one from the local pharmacy -- or he believed a fresh one was better than a cured one -- I could no longer remember). He tore the whole mud-made stove down, making the kitchen a huge mess. The roaches apparently liked to dwell in cracks in the stove.

Apitherapy is now very popular in China, there are now at least three institutes or hospitals famous for apitherapies (Xi'an of Shanxi, Lianyungang of Zhenjiang and Nanjing of Jiangsu). Arthritis is the most popular disease to be treated by bee stings. Recently, apitherapy is also used for both arthritis and for muscular dystrophy in US. Other bee products used for medicine include honey, propolis (used in an alcoholic tonic). Royal jelly is very popular as a health-strengthening food, especially among the "intellectualls" (professors, researchers, etc). Use of pollen as health food is rather recent, perhaps after the Europeans. Queen larvae, mostly by-products of royal jelly production, are also used for making alcoholic tonic.

Ants are used as health food and a medicine, though as usual it is not known what are the active ingredients. There had been an anecdotal report that a village of long-living people (average ~90) attributed their longevity to the habit of frying up ants and eating them. Ant is a major component of a herbal medicine for hepatitis B (Mayi Yigan Ning). This medicine is reported to give a 60% efficiency to convert hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) to serum negative. This compares favorably with the ~30% conversion efficiency using interferon, as reported by medical journals in US. There are also wines and tonic made with ants.

5. Insects as pets

Insects are often subjects of art in ancient China. Sculptures (jade crickets), paintings, poems, often feature insects. Insects are also used for amusement, for example, releasing of large quantities of fireflies was used for imperial entertainment. Guoguo (Orthoptera: Tettigoniidae, Gampsocleis gratiosa) is a long-horn grasshopper used as a pet, mostly for people in Northern China. Dr. Robert W. Pemberton, a cultural entomologist, witnessed the selling of the singing crickets in Beijing in 1987 (Pemberton, 1989). Insects are housed individually in nicely woven bamboo ages, each selling for 30 cents (10 cents US) in August. Earlier in the season, they can sell for about 3 yuan ($1). Most were caught by farmers, but some are reared. In winter 1988, a male cricket was sold for 50 Yuan (=$16.70), which was more than one- third of an average worker's monthly salary.

When I was young, I used to rear silkworm sort of as pets. It is also common to see scarab beetles or dragon flies tied to a string, and used as toys for kids 4-5 years old.

Cricket fighting, which was very popular in ancient China, is slowly being revived. The earliest publication for how to use cricket for fighting is in Song Dynasty (1213-1275). The practice became rare after revolution in 1949, and was banned during the cultural revolution, due to its "bourgeois nature". Now it is making a coming back. There are even Association for Cricket Fighting in Beijing. The association sponsors national tournaments whereby modern equipment such as video cameras are used to zoom in and project the fighting onto many television sets, which enable many viewers to see the fighting simultaneously.

According to Dr. Robert Pemberton, Asians seem to have less phobia for insects compared to North Americans, and enjoy insects more.

6. Insects as food

Nymphs of cicadas, larvae/pupae of wasps and ants were used as delicacies for emperors and nobles. Locusts (Acrididae, Oxya) are also used as food, not only in China, but also in Japan and Korea (Pemberton, 1994). Pupae of silkworms which just finished producing silk was also good food. Predacious diving beetle and giant water-bug are popular in south China (mostly in Guandong Province). The Thai giant wanterbug (Lethocerus indicus) also appeared in Thai food shops in California (Pemberton, 1988). Dragon flies are caught and grilled, in China, Japan, Laos and Thailand (Pemberton, 1995). I also heard some people in North China eat fried scorpions. While visiting my in-laws in Northern China, I was treated with giant silkworm pupae. They were fried for about 20 minutes with no spice. The mid-gut, which is the only recognizable tissue in the whole pupa, was taken out and discarded. I suspect the pupae were in winter diapause because the rest of the pupae was sponge-like. For some pictures of cooking and eating of this insect, please use Mosaic or Netscape to view my bug eating page at http://www.cyberbee.net/bugeat/
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Acknowledgements:

I thank Dr. May Berenbaum for inviting me to give the lecture to her class "Insects and People", on which this electronically published article was originally based. I am also grateful to Xuekui Sun who kindly loaned me the book of Chou Io, to Dr. Ren Wang who faxed me materials, provided many useful information regarding cricket-fighting and introduced me to Dr. Robert Pemberton, to Dr. Zhihe Guan who provided me information on medicinal insects and sent me a whole book on cricket-fighting. I am indebted to Dr. Pemberton, who exchanged much information with me over the phone and also sent me many reprints of his publications. Finally, I thank Dangsheng Liang who established the network for Chinese entomologists, which provided a forum for a very interesting discussion, and all the participants in that discussion which made this article possible.

References:

  1. Chou, I. 1990. A History of Chinese Entomology. Tianze Press, China.
  2. Pemberton, R.W. 1988. The use of the Thai giant waterbug, Lethocerus indicus (Hemiptera: Belostomatidae), as human food in California. Pan- Pacific Entomologist 64(1):81-82.
  3. Pemberton, R.W. 1990. The selling of Gampsocleis gratiosa Brunner (Orthoptera: Tettigoniidae) as singing pets in China. Pan-Pacific Entomologist 66(1):93-95.
  4. Pemberton, R.W. 1994. The revival of rice-field grasshoppers as human food in south Korea. Pan-Pacific Entomologist 70(4):323-327.
  5. Pemberton, R.W. 1995. Catching and eating dragonflies in Bali and elsewhere in Asia. in press in American Entomologist.
  6. Steinkraus, D.C. and J.B. Whitefield. 1994. Chinese caterpillar fungus and world record runners. American Entomologist 40:235-239.


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