Eight miles high – blue sky speculations on the possible origins of moxa

It’s about 500 miles from Pyongyang in North Korea to Beijing in China - at least it is if you fly as the crow does. North Korea’s Koryo airline, however, takes an altogether more circuitous route, avoiding the sea and tracking a course over the land some way inside the curve of the coastline – first north-west up towards Manchuria, then west and finally southwest and south down towards the Chinese capital. So instead of taking not much more than an hour, this longer route therefore takes over two.

Why they take this longer route is their own business. But because of it, if you look out of a porthole on the right just as the noise of the engines change and the plane starts to dip down towards Beijing you’ll see an unlikely thin grey line tracking rather crazily across the ridges of the jagged mountains below.

This is the eastern end of China’s Great Wall, meandering off westwards along the mountainous crests. Seen from this aerial perspective you can get a real idea of just what an extraordinary feat building this wall was, begun by the first imperial dynasty (the Qin) and then largely completed in the ensuing centuries by the Han to keep the marauding nomadic horsemen out of their civilisation. But last month the sight of it provoked another perspective entirely because the sight of the Wall from Koryo Airline’s Tupelov 204 shifted our previous speculations about where moxa may have originated.

We already reckoned that moxa was probably not indigenous to China. Chapter 10 of the Neijing Suwen hints strongly about this: “Moxibustion comes from the North” it states rather vaguely. Okay, so they gave us a direction to work with, but north of where exactly? And anyway, how far north?

Our own interpretation has been that it did indeed come from the North (meaning beyond the Great Wall), and that it most probably originated among the nomadic peoples living in Mongolia (and all points west) - folk who depended on their ability to light fires each time they set up new camps. This, we felt, is likely because mugwort, the raw material used for moxa, is such an ideal tinder material for lighting fires and so developed special value, perhaps of a shamanic nature. You don’t have to think for very long about how tough it must be to live nomadically anywhere in the unforgiving vastness of Asia to recognise that good tinder is a pretty important material to have at hand at all times.

Well because of that view out the plane window our speculations have shifted. Yes, we still think that moxibustion as a therapy might indeed have come from the north, but maybe not from the particular nomadic culture of the steppes that we thought was most logical.

Instead, we now wonder whether perhaps it came from another equally ancient culture in the adjacent Korean peninsular because, as is so neatly evidenced by the way the Koryo Airlines flight flew up and round into China approaching Beijing from the north, this whole peninsular is also ‘north’ of the Great Wall (though not as the crow flies).

Mugwort in Korea’s creation myth

Here’s something new that we also didn’t know until this recent trip which undoubtedly helped trigger this speculation. We didn’t know that Korean culture has such an intimate connection with mugwort which might possibly predate both Japan’s and China’s.

Whereas mugwort first emerges in extant Chinese culture in the Book of Odes (c. 700 BCE), in Korean culture it appears in the culture’s very creation myth – the story of the birth of Dangun, the first Choson king (and the founder of the original Korean ruling dynasty).

This story throws us way back into prehistory – according to the mythology as much as 5,000 years ago in fact. So here’s the culture’s mugwort-related creation story in brief:-

Dangun’s grandfather was the Hwanin, or ‘Lord of Heaven’. The Hwanin’s son was Hwanung (i.e. who later became Dangun’s father). Hwanung wasn’t so struck with the business of living in Heaven, longing instead to live on earth. So, he and a band of his heavenly followers were allowed to descend to earth where, according to legend, (helped by his ministers of cloud, rain and wind) he taught the primitive humans specific skills which includedng agriculture and medicine. In fact (according to sinologist Joseph Needham, no less) legend has it that Dangun even taught humans acumoxa.

But then the story gets more involved and mugwort enters the action. It's said that a tiger and a bear came to Hwanung imploring him that they too be allowed to live as human beings. Hwanung (maybe emulating his own father’s generosity in allowing himself to live on earth) told them both that if they stayed in the darkness of a cave for a hundred days and ate only twenty cloves of garlic and a bundle of mugwort then he would enable their wish, and they could live as human beings. Not surprisingly, the carnivorous tiger couldn’t cope with either the confinement or the diet and he bailed out after a meagre twenty days. If you think about it, the whole challenge may have been a bit unfair on the tiger given that bears are naturally so much more suited to staying long periods in caves without eating much than tigers are – and so the bear re-emerged on schedule and then magically transformed into a human woman.

This ‘bear-woman’ was called Ungnyeo and she was naturally very grateful to Hwanung. But she also quickly saddened because she now longed for a child and lacked a human husband. Hwanung heard her prayers and responded by taking her for his wife – and in consequence, soon after, Dangun, the original emperor of Korea was born.

Okay, even by creation myth standards it’s a fanciful tale (and the story itself is doubtless nowhere near as old as is taught) but the key point of relevance to our speculations is that mugwort is right there at the germination moment of the culture – and it’s still very much part of Korean culture today.

36 strains of wild mugwort

So here’s another thing we didn’t know till until we met an expert in Pyongyang during our recent visit to the DPRK: there are 36 strains of mugwort which grow wild in the Korean peninsular (16 of which are used either for edible or therapeutic purposes).

There’s actually another strain, incidentally, that’s grown under cultivation at some scale on Ganghwa Island in the south, but this has recently been genetically shown to be of Chinese genetic lineage (of artemisia argyii).

36 wild strains of mugwort are quite possibly more strains than grow in Japan![i]

We came across an additional clue in the Korean language as well, which brought us right back to our earlier speculation about the origins of moxa. In Korean, mugwort is known as ssuk. Apparently the word is derived from three words pur su uk, which in Korean literally mean ‘use mugwort for lighting fire’.

So we come back to our imagined link between moxibustion and tinder for lighting fires.

So did moxa ‘come from the North’ as the Suwen tells us? Quite probably. But does that mean that it originated in Mongolia or Central Asia as we previously believed, among the nomadic horsemen who so persistently threatened China from the North? Well maybe, and maybe not.

Just maybe it was from another ancient culture – from the one that originated independently on the neighbouring peninsular that is actually to the east.

Make up your own mind!

[i] There are reckoned to be around 30 species of mugwort that are indigenous to Japan.

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