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The following is an excerpt from my current book project, a translation and discussion of Qí Zhòngfǔ’s 齊仲甫 Nü Ke Bai Wen 女科百問 (A Hundred Questions in Gynecology), published in 1220. It is one of two formulas attached to Question Sixteen:
Women’s Propensity to Generate All Sorts of Conditions as the Result of Wind Cold
Answer: Wind is surely a Yáng evil, and cold is surely the Qì of winter-cold. Wind follows vacuity to enter, while cold is caused by taxation damage. If people rest and nurture their health in accordance with cosmic principles, the blood and Qì are harmonious, and wind, winter-cold, summer-heat, and dampness are not able to cause harm. If taxation damages the blood and Qì and then causes vacuity detriment, however, wind and cold exploit this vacuity and interfere.
Perhaps they intrude into the channels and network vessels, congealing and impeding the smooth flow of Qì and blood so that [the blood and Qì] are unable to warm and nourish the skin. Or they enter the inside of the abdomen, resulting in depletion of the Chōng Qì and inability to digest food and drink. Vacuity in the large intestine results in propensity to diarrhea. Cold in the uterus results in failure to bear children. Wether it is a matter of interrupted flow or of a failure to flow through, illness is formed in response to the nature of the damage, and in all cases the Qì of wind cold is unavoidable.
Dān Qiān Dān （Cinnabar and Lead Elixir）
Treat all conditions of vacuity cold.
lùróng, língshā, báilónggǔ, chuānjiāo, yángqǐshí, mǔlìfěn, ròuguì, ròucōngróng, shíhú, chuānbājǐ, mùzéi, zéxiè, tiānxióng (steep in wine and blast-fry), chénxiāng, tùsīzǐ (steep in wine), wànàqí
1 liǎng each
císhí (quench in vinegar), shèxiāng
1.5 liǎng each
Process the ingredients above into a fine powder and mix with refined honey into pills the size of wútóng seeds. Take 100 pills per dose by downing them in warm wine or hot salt water.
It is easy to read through this formula quickly and overlook a curious ingredient that is just innocently tucked in among all the others: 膃肭臍 wànàqí, a.k.a. seal testicles. The reader only interested in directly clinically applicable information is invited to skip over the following discussion. Nevertheless, my love of seals, based on my interactions with these curious, personable, graceful yet powerful creatures when I swim in the Puget Sound north of Seattle, has induced me to indulge in a small detour. What is the significance of this rare ingredient in a gynecological formula for vacuity cold in a book that otherwise contains almost exclusively herbal medicinals with only a few minerals in alchemically oriented prescriptions here and there? Of course, lùróng (velvet deerhorn), báilónggǔ (dragon bone), mǔlì (oyster shell), and shèxiāng (musk) are also substances derived from animals, albeit more commonly used ones.
Illustration of wanaqi from a Ming dynasty materia medica
So what is this mysterious ingredient, wànàqí, which, I have to admit, I had never come across before? Also called 海狗腎 hǎigǒushèn (“sea dog kidney”), it is clear that its historical meaning and continued traditional use refers to the penis and testes of male seals, not the kidney. Of course the kidney is closely related to the reproductive organs in Chinese medicine, the original character in the Chinese name (臍 qí) actually means “navel,” and the penis and testes are sometimes referred to as the external kidney anyway. According to the Zhōng Yào Dà Cí Diǎn 中藥大辭典 (Great Dictionary of Chinese Materia Medica), the substance is salty and hot, enters the liver and kidney channels, and is used to
“warm the kidney, strengthen Yáng, boost jīng essence, and supplement the marrow. It treats vacuity detriment and taxation damage, Yáng wilting and debilitation of jīng essence, and weakness in the lumbus and kidney.”
In volume 51 of the Běn Cǎo Gāng Mù from 1596, it is described as follows:
“Its Qì and flavor are salty, greatly hot, and non-toxic. It is indicated for demonic Qì and corpse influx, dreams of intercourse with ghosts, demons, goblins and fox spirits, heart and abdominal pain, malignity strike with evil Qì, abiding blood binding into clots, strings and aggregations, and marked emaciation. In men, it treats abiding concretions and Qì lumps, accumulating cold and taxation Qì, kidney essence weakness, taxation caused by too much sexual activity, and haggard emaciation. It supplements the center and boosts kidney Qì, warms the lumbus and knees, assists Yáng Qì, breaks concretions and bindings, and cures fright, mania, and seizures. It is most excellent for the five taxations and seven damages, Yīn wilting and lack of strength, kidney vacuity, taxation oppression in the back and shoulders, and black face and cold jīng essence.
One of the most outstanding characteristics of seals, which as an avid open water swimming in the cold Pacific Northwest I envy them greatly for, is that they frolic comfortably in very cold water because of their large amount of insulating blubber. It thus makes intuitive sense that they would be a good substance for the treatment of cold. The spectacular mating behavior of male seals, from the powerful and aggressive establishment of their rookeries to the subsequent defense of their harems, is easily observed since it occurs on land. Additionally, penises in general are a potent Yáng-supplementing medicinal in Chinese medicine, whether derived from dogs, stallions, or seals, since they combine the concentrated power of the male “jade stalk” with the inherently Yīn nature of all reproductive organs as associated with the kidney and the innermost aspect of the body. Even though seal testicles are not a common medicinal in gynecological formulas, we can see how its greatly heating and Yáng-supplementing quality makes it a perfect ingredient for a condition of vacuity cold. It is even possible that this formula was originally not gendered but used for male cases of vacuity cold as well. Unfortunately, I have not been able to trace it back to an earlier source.