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The Korea-America Ginseng 'War'
18th century competition for the Chinese market was the first recorded contact between Korea, U.S.
Young Kim (kimsoft)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2005-07-18 16:02 (KST)   
The ginseng "trade war" that began in the 1730s was the first recorded contact between Korea and the people of North America -- the United States of America came into being much later in 1776.

Ginseng roots from Canada and the American colonies began to flood the Chinese markets and stopped the centuries-old Korean monopoly of ginseng in China. It is estimated that Korean ginseng used to earn as much as "three tons of silver" a year from China before the Canadian and American ginseng began to arrive in China.

For over 10,000 years, ginseng has been popular among Asians and Native Americans for its medicinal and erotic effects. Oriental medical doctors and Indian "medicine men," or shamans, have used ginseng roots to cure many illnesses. Some historians believe that the Native Americans brought knowledge of ginseng with them when they crossed the Bering Strait to America in search of food.

It is likely that the plant was initially used for food because of its meaty, perennial root. The ginseng root is unusually large in comparison to size of the plant. It has been established that ginseng root contains chemicals that affect the body's functions in positive ways. Although ginseng plants grow in Manchuria, Siberia, and elsewhere in the Far East, Korean ginseng is the most valued for its extraordinary medicinal effects. (Korean Ginseng, 2003)

Ginseng has been used and prized as a medicinal herb for more than 5,000 years in China and Korea. Ginseng plants grow naturally in Manchuria, Korea, and parts of North America. The Native American "medicine men" have known of the medicinal value of the plants for thousands of years. (Korean Ginseng, 2003)
By the 3rd century A.D., ginseng became one of the main export products of Korea. By the 1600s, wild ginseng was all but wiped out in Korea because of over-harvesting, and Korea could no longer meet the ever-growing demand for Korean ginseng in China.

The Koreans successfully invented ways to cultivate ginseng, and soon, cultivated Korean ginseng began to flood the Chinese markets. Ginseng cultivation was centered at Kaesong, in modern-day North Korea, and the government had monopoly of ginseng exports.

Unfortunately for Korea, it turned out that ginseng plants grow naturally in North America and almost every Indian tribe of North America has been using ginseng in the same manner as the Asians had been using, as written by Jack Waters, author of "History of American Ginseng."

For example, it is well known that the Cherokees, who called ginseng roots "the little man," used ginseng roots for colic, convulsions, dysentery, and headaches. Other tribes used ginseng roots for easing digestion, increasing appetite and easing female menstrual problems. Other Indian curative uses are for exhaustion, breathlessness, croup, and preventing the wounded from dying of shock. (Waters, 2003)

Panax ginseng C A Meyer root -- the more shaped like a human and the older, the higher the value. Ginseng plants, more than 100 years old, have been found. (Korean Ginseng, 2003)
Although ginseng has been popular in Asia for over 5,000 years, Westerners did not learn about it until about 1670 when Dutch sailor Hendrick Hamel published a book about his years of captivity in Korea. Hamel wrote of ginseng:

"In those areas, the people live from barley and millet, because rice can't grow there. Cotton grows there neither, so it had to be supplied from the south. The ordinary man in these areas is most of the time shabbily dressed in hemp, linen or hides. However, in these areas, one can also find the ginseng plant. The root of this plant is being used to pay the tribute to the Tartarians. This stuff is furthermore much exported to China and Japan." (As cited in Lee Hae Gang, 2000)

In 1709, the French Jesuit priest Petrus Jartoux in China read about the profitable ginseng trade and wrote a letter to his colleague Father Lafitau in St. Louise, Canada, suggesting that ginseng plants might be found in America. After receiving the letter in 1714, Lafitau began looking for ginseng. He knew the Native Americans used the plant and hired some Iroquois Indians to assist in his search. Sure enough, Lafitau discovered ginseng in Canada in 1716. (Talk-Koo Yun; Trade and Environmental Database).

It turns out that the North American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius L.) is one of three true ginseng plants from the Araliaceae family, and that Ontario, Quebec, and Wisconsin are natural habitats of the plant. Lafitau's discovery started a boom in ginseng trade in Montreal, Canada.

Some bright French-Canadian fur traders saw the enormous potential for profits in exporting Canadian ginseng to China. According to Waters (2003), the traders paid the ginseng collectors 25 cents per pound and then sold the roots for $5 per pound in China, and by 1752, the traders were making as much as $100,000 per shipment of ginseng -- it should be noted that one U.S. dollar in 1750 was worth about $25 today. (Sahr, 2003)

However, the ginseng windfall did not last long, for, in their haste to cash in on these newly found "woodland nuggets of gold," the plant was over-harvested and soon became rare.

Some greedy traders gathered yearling and then dried them in ovens, instead of drying them slowly in natural sunlight. Soon the Chinese patrons stopped buying Canadian ginseng roots, and the Canadian ginseng trade collapsed to less than $6,500 by 1754. (Waters, 2003)

With the collapse of the Canadian ginseng trade, the traders turned to the American colonies, which were more than eager to take over the profitable ginseng trade with China. Soon brisk ginseng harvesting and exports began in America.

One of the early American ginseng traders was John Jacob Astor, who made a profit of $55,000 in his first shipment. It is believed that George Washington himself was in the ginseng business and that the American Revolutionary War of 1775-1783 was partially financed with ginseng money.

Col. Daniel Boone jumped on the ginseng bonanza, too. He hired Native Americans to collect wild ginseng roots in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky. In 1788, his first shipment of 12 tons of ginseng roots was lost when the barge carrying the cargo capsized in the Ohio River. Undaunted, Boone was able to harvest more roots and shipped them safely to China in the following year. Contrary to the common belief, the Boone family fortune was made from ginseng, not from selling animal skins. (Waters, 2003).

On February 22, 1784, the Empress of China left New York Harbor bound for China loaded with American ginseng roots. She returned home loaded with Chinese tea leaves. Her investors made as much as 30 percent profit. It was a win-win, two-way trade. Philadelphia soon became the primary port of export of ginseng roots to the Orient. (Harrison et al.)

Paule E. Fontenoyan (1997) writes, "The sole previous American venture, by the Empress of China, had taken out a mixed cargo including thirty tons of Appalachian ginseng, fifty tons of cordage, and thirty tons of lead, plus planks, cloth, and assorted wines and spirits. This had sold for just over $270,000; the ginseng alone accounted for $240,000. In addition, $20,000 in silver dollars had been shipped in casks to be used for further purchases."

Ginseng was one of the earliest marketable herbs to be harvested in America and one of Minnesota's first major exports. In 1860, more than 120 tons of dried ginseng roots were shipped from Minnesota to China. The ginseng trade continued to flourish until the late 1800s. By 1862, ginseng exports exceeded 300 tons per year. Dried wild ginseng roots fetched as much as $300 per pound in today's dollars and some aged ginseng roots went for as much as $550 per pound. (Agri-Food Trade Service)

The sudden influx of ginseng roots from Canada and the American colonies came as a shock to Korean ginseng growers and traders. Korea's 1,000-year ginseng monopoly in China came to an abrupt end, and American ginseng dealers became dominant in the ginseng markets of Beijing and Canton in China. The American ginseng traders brought back Chinese tea to America for handsome double trade profits.

A Kaesong ginseng farm. Ginseng cultivation began in the 1600s in Korea centered at Kaesong. Kaesong ginseng is deemed the best in the world even today. ("Korean History," 2003)
By mid-1860, wild ginseng plants in America became almost extinct and could not support the thriving ginseng trade with China, whereupon, the American ginseng traders "stole" the art of cultivating ginseng from Korea. Several Korean ginseng growers were brought to the United States for the first Korea-America technology transfer, and it is believed that the Korean ginseng growers were the first Koreans to set foot in America. The first attempts at cultivation were met with failure, however, in a few years, cultivated ginseng roots from America began to flood the Chinese markets. (Harris, Scott)

It has been alleged that some unscrupulous Korean ginseng growers had imported cultivated ginseng roots from America and then sold them labeled "Made in Chosun" (referring to the last Korean dynasty) to the Chinese.

Today, there exists a large market for ginseng in America as a substitute for Viagra and other drugs. Ginseng is popular not only with Asian-Americans, but also with a growing number of non-Asian-Americans as well. The irony is that some of the "Korean ginseng roots" sold in America are in fact Chinese or Siberian, which are not as medicinal as the Korean roots.

Thanks to the ginseng "trade war," Korea became aware of America and America began to cast hungry glances at the untapped markets of Korea. Ginseng brought Korea and America together. The ginseng competition became an important cause of the U.S.-Chosun armed conflicts of 1866 and of 1871, which led to the 1882 U.S.-Chosun Chemulpo Treaty of Amity and Trade. (Griffis, 1894).

Because of extensive harvesting, ginseng is on the endangered list in Canada and the U.S. and only those licensed are permitted to harvest wild ginseng in limited areas and months. Ironically, it has been discovered that Asian deer brought to America to control certain Asian plants growing wild in American have a taste for ginseng, accelerating the demise of this honorable plant.

Agri-Food Trade Service of Canada. (2000). THE CANADIAN GINSENG INDUSTRY: PREPARING FOR THE 21ST CENTURY. Retrieved March 18, 2003, from:

American Memory. (2000). Daniel Boone and Ginseng. American Memory.

AsianInfo (2003). Korean History - March 1st Independence Struggle. Retrieved March 28, 2003 from http://www.asianinfo.org/asianinfo/korea/history.htm

Fontenoyan, Paule E, (1997). "Experimental" Voyage to China. 1785-1787. The American Neptune. East India Square, Salem, MA: Peabody Essex Museum. Retrieved on March 18, 2003, from: http://www.pem.org/neptune/voyage1.htm

Groffis, William Elliot. (1894). The American relations with the Far East. The New England Magazine, XI. [Cornell University Library Making of America Online Series].

Harris, Scott. Sylvan Botanicals - New York Ginseng. Retrieved March 18, 2003, from: http://www.bearsystems.com/ginseng/ginseng.html

Harrison, H.C., et al. (2000). Alternative Field Crop Manual - Ginseng. Retrieved March 18, 2003, from: http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/afcm/ginseng.html

Korea.net. Korean Ginseng. Retrieved March 18, 2003, from:
Lee, Hae Kang (aka Henny Savenije). (2000). In the wake of the Portuhuese. Retrieved March 18, 2003, from: http://www.hendrick-hamel.henny-savenije.pe.kr/holland3.htm

Lee, Hae Kang (aka Henny Savenije). (2000a). Von Siebold's drawings of Korean people. Retrieved March 18, 2003, from: .http://www.oldkorea.henny-savenije.pe.kr/siebold

Sahr, Robert. (2003). Inflation Conversion Factors for Dollars 1665 to Estimated 2013. Oregon State University. Retrieved on March 18, 2003, from: http://oregonstate.edu/Dept/pol_sci/fac/sahr/sahr.htm
Sun-jo (2003). Korean History - Sunjo 1800-1834. Retrieved March 18, 2003, from: http://hevent.changwon.go.kr/roks821/edu/hist/jo/z23.htm

Trade and Environmental Database (TED). Ginseng Wisdom. Retrieved March 18, 2003, from: http://www.american.edu/TED/ginseng.htm

Waters, Jack. (2003). History of American Ginseng. Tellico Plains Mountain Press. Retrieved on March 18, 2003, from: http://www.telliquah.com/Ginseng/Ginseng.htm

Yun, Talk-Koo. (2000). Brief Intoduction of Panax ginseng C.A. Meyer. Retrieved March 18, 2003, from: http://jkms.kams.or.kr/2001/pdf/12s003.pdf
©2005 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Young Kim

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