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Mycologist, Volume 18, Part 4 November 2004. ©The British Mycological Society Printed in the United Kingdom. DOI: 10.


The perception of Ganoderma lucidum in Chinese and Western culture
Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, Michigan State University, E. Lansing, Michigan, USA, 48824 E-mail:

The art, mythology, and controversial science surrounding Ganoderma lucidum (Ling Chih) in China are described.

Keywords: Chinese art and mythology, Ganoderma lucidum, Ling chih, morphology, controversy The idea that either fungi or a particular fungus have special medicinal, symbolic or mystical properties has existed in China since antiquity. This has been described by modern historians and subject to various interpretations based on the translations of the Chinese symbols, which have evolved, and local customs. It was stated that mushrooms ‘absorb the earthly vapors and leave a Heavenly atmosphere’ (Wei, 1969). Frequently the concrete connection between myth and image is a place: the sky, an island or a mountain. It was believed that the sacred fungus grew in the home of the immortals on the ‘three aisles of the blest’ off the coast of China (Yetts, 1912). Parts of ‘The Classic of the Mountains and the Seas’, written in China between the 3rd century BCE and 2nd century CE, contain descriptions of plants and rocks (especially jade) on 447 mountains, and a text from about the 1st/century CE mentions a small or fairie ‘mushroom people’, and in another location a Mount Mushroom (Birrell, 1999). This author notes that this is largely mythology and the problem of plant identification is unresolved. Although historically there were several special fungi (Wang Yun-Chang, 1987), today Ganoderma lucidum (Fig 1) is usually considered to be Ling Chih (Lingzhi, ling-chi) or sacred fungus (Arora, 1986; Little, 1988). Besides immortality, it symbolizes success, well being, divine power, good health, and longevity. In the 6th century CE one Taoist sect, descended from a mystical group founded in about the 4th century BCE engaged in alchemy. The following is an example of one of their elixirs supposed to promote immortality. It was prepared by an adolescent disciple Chou Tzu-liang (ca 515-516/century CE). Powdered mushroom (plus cinnabar: mercuric sulphide) was steeped overnight in

an earthenware jar buried 3 ft from a north wall. It was dug up, put inside at the head of the bed, boiled in a copper vessel, and left sealed. The elixir was achieved if it gave off enough light for reading at night, stopped flowing streams, sealed doors etc.. All of these steps were for precise times. For more details see Strickmann (1979). The disciple swallowed some elixir and died. The idea that G. lucidum is hallucigenic and thus the ‘soma’ is explored and rejected by Wasson (1968). Too tough to be edible, one way to prepare it is to soak the fruiting body in wine for several months, and then the liquid is either drunk or put in candy (Arora, 1986). It is sold for medicinal purposes in markets in Thailand today (Chamberlain, 1996). Ganoderma lucidum is found on either the base of stumps or roots of living hardwoods, and has a worldwide distribution. There are two growth forms: one common in N. America with little or no stem (Fig 1), and the other with a long stem and relatively small cap more common in the tropics and old world. (like G. perzonatum Fig 4). There are many intermediate forms and occasionally specimens have branched stems (Arora, 1986). A 19th C physician to the Russian delegation in Peking described the ling chih sold in apothecary shops as orange, ligneous and branched (Bretschneider, 1892). A detailed review of Ganoderma sp in N. Europe was provided by Petersen (1987). Scientific explanations of its shape can be either environmental or genetic or both. Wasson (1968) suggested that the branched form is caused by lack of light, since the original specimen (the basis of mythology) with nine branches appeared on wood in the inner pavilion in the Imperial Palace being constructed by Emperor Wu during the Han Dynasty in the 2nd /century BCE (see Fig 3, 17th/century CE scroll). This is supported by Bambeke (1895), who found longer stems and smaller caps in caves. Boudier (1899) 165

Mycologist, Volume 18, Part 4 November 2004

Fig 1 Ganoderma lucidum, fresh specimen, Ginn Woods, Indiana, Sept. 20, 2002. Fig 2 Ganoderma lucidum, growing on a sawdust mixture in plastic containers, photo by Wen-Neng Chou, National Museum of Natural Science, Taiwan.

reported that injury caused branching. The distribution of long stems that are occasionally branched in the Old World and little stems in N. America (Arora, 1986) may reflect a genetic difference in the population. To investigate this Triratan & Chaiprasert (1991) crossed 14 monokaryotic cultures of G. lucidum native to Thailand and most of the basidiocarps formed were like the parent (Fig 1 type), but there were ‘unusual ones’. These studies were conducted under fairly uniform conditions: a substrate mixture of pararubber (Hevea brasiliensis) sawdust, rice bran, gypsum and magnesium sulphate with ‘natural indoor daylight’ at 27-32°C. They associate branching in some cases with CO2 accumulation under plastic wrap in an arrangement similar to that shown in Fig 2. The proliferation of representations of G. lucidum in art beginning in the 1400’s CE is associated with Taoism. A number of abstract styles can be used to depict this organism as is shown in the diagrams in Fig 5. These styles are based on the fact that the upper surface of the fan shaped G. lucidum (Fig 1) has concentric grooves and brown to reddish brown bands with a white area of most recent growth at the margin. Style a (Fig 5) is a sceptre, a symbol of power frequently in the hands in an emperor’s portrait, and here (Fig 7) as part of a ‘rebus’: a bouquet of plants representing immortality (Yetts, 1912). In Fig 6 a man and a boy are gathering fungi (Fig 5 style b), not flowers (see the symbol for fungus Fig 5 b, Fry et. al. 1925). Style c (Fig 5) with nine branches is on the table in Fig 3. You may think that the designs behind the crane in Fig 10 are just clouds but they are shaped like the 166

fungus in the beak of the crane in Fig 9, hence the conclusion that the clouds are actually cloudmushroom designs (Wasson, 1968) and symbolize the aforementioned Heavenly atmosphere. A variant cloudmushroom is on a cup (Fig 8). The last stage in this shift toward abstraction is a painting titled ‘The pavilion of the purple fungus’ (Siren, 1958) in which the fungus is not shown at all, and thus not pictured here. Just putting the word mushroom into the title implies immortality. Examples like those chosen here (Figs 3 & 5 – 10) can be found in

Fig 3 A nine branched Ganoderma lucidum on a table is a detail in a hanging scroll depicting ‘Lady Xuanwen Jun giving instructions on the classics’, dated 1638, by Chen Hongshou 1598-1652, Ming Dynasty, ink and color on silk, 173.7 x 55.4 cm. © The Cleveland Museum of Art, 2002, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund, 1961.89.

Mycologist, Volume 18, Part 4 November 2004

Fig 4 Ganoderma perzonatum, dried specimen, Puerto Rico, 1913, collection of the New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, N.Y. reference number 7143. Fig 5 Styles of Ganoderma lucidum representation in art: a) a scepter, b) symbol for Ling Chih "sacred fungus" (Fry et al 1925), c) type in either cloud like or branched form. Fig 6 A man and boy gathering fungi (see symbol Fig 5 b), a) and b) Fig 6 are enlargements of the contents of the baskets, scroll, 1930, Michigan State University Museum, Cat. No. 1637.4. Fig 7 A rebus or bouquet of plants, detail of wine pot, 19th C, Michigan State University Museum, Cat. No. 2382.27. Fig 8 A cloud-mushroom design on a cup purchased from a street vendor in Hong Kong in 1987. Fig 9 A crane (symbol of longevity) with a fungus in its beak, a detail on an oriental lacquered stand in an antique store in Ohio, USA. Fig 10 A crane surrounded by cloud mushrooms, detail in the gown of a "Portrait of a Chinese Lady", anonymous, early 19th C, Ming tradition, watercolor on silk, gift of Dr. Shao Chang Lee, Kresge Museum of Art, Michigan State University, Cat. No. 60.3.1.


Mycologist, Volume 18, Part 4 November 2004

many places ranging from museums of fine arts and natural history to antique stores and street vendors illustrating the pervasiveness of the fungus as a symbol in Chinese culture. By studying the perception of fungi in China we can acquire insight into both Western and Eastern culture. If you examine photos of 17th and early 18th C European decorated objects referred to as ‘Chinoiserie’ by art historians, who indicate that their designs are based primarily on descriptions and only secondarily on Chinese imported products (Gruber, 1994), you will find that representations of fungi are missing. The indices of Western books on Chinese art include jade, cranes, chrysanthemum, lotus, etc, also linked to mythology, but fungus and mushroom with similar symbolism are not listed even though they appear in the photos and text. Eastern scientists have reported that spore extracts of G. lucidum prolong the life span, stimulate and regulate the immune system, and affect the endocrine system in mice suggesting that it is an antiageing agent (Xiao et al., 1993). Liu (1993) not only reported therapeutic effects of G. lucidum in mice but also in patients with several human diseases and pointed out the need for greater effort in understanding the nature and mode of action of these agents. Pegler (2002) comments that limited clinical tests in the West have failed to confirm the claim of curative properties. To what extent is the perception of a ‘cure’ or even the observation of experimental results by a scientist influenced by one’s cultural history, i.e. Eastern or Western? If you think something will cure you, is it more likely to do so? Why were the uncommon forms of G. lucidum described as monstrocities caused by teratogens in the West (Bambeke, 1895) or abnormal (Pegler, 2002), while in the East they were viewed more positively? These questions may motivate us to further study. Nonmycologist acquaintances and museum curators are interested in knowing what is in their art collections. For field mycologists it is an area to explore when it is not the season for gathering fungi. Questions are being raised as to whether what is now called G. lucidum is one species or several because of its diverse morphology (Seo & Kirk, 2000; Pegler & Yao, 1996). Ryvarden (1994) has referred to the situation as taxonomic chaos. This organism, that has been considered for centuries in some Asian societies as medicinally good for humans, has relatively recently been associated with a root rot disease in coconut in India (Bhaskaran, 2000). Can the fungus associated with either art or a plant disease really be G. lucidum, if taxonomists haven’t decided on its description? 168

Acknowledgements Thanks to Val Berryman, curator of collections at the Michigan State University Museum, for sharing his expertise in this area.
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Mycologist, Volume 18, Part 4 November 2004. ©The British Mycological Society Printed in the United Kingdom.

Wang, Y-C. (1987). Mycology in Ancient China. Mycologist 1: 59-61. Wasson, R. G. (1968). Soma: Divine mushroom of immortality. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: New York. Wei, D. (1969). Chinese Materia Medica. Kut’ing Book House: Taipei, Taiwan.

Xiao, P. G., Xing, S. T. & Wang, L. W. (1993). Immunological aspects of Chinese medicinal plants as antiageing drugs. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 38: 167-175. Yetts, W. P. (1912). Symbolism in Chinese Art. The China Society. E. J. Brill Co.: Leyden, Holland.

Society for General Microbiology 154th Meeting. Joint Environmental Microbiology Group and the British Mycological Society session, Bath, March 31-April 1 2004
The joint SGM/BMS session at the University of Bath was an ideal occasion to bring together expertise from mycology, microbiology, and geoscience. Two excellent presentations by Henry Ehrlich and Geoffrey Gadd opened the session, and conveyed a sense of conceptual synergy that remained for the two days. An extraordinarily high quality of symposia by international leaders in the fields of fungal activity, biomineralisation, bioremediation, and other disciplines was presented, supported by a wide variety of posters and informal discussions in a relaxed environment. Several presentations that included animated modelling of fungal growth and nutrient transport mechanisms illustrated the potential of applying advanced mathematics to biological systems. The University of Bath was a large enough venue to provide all the necessary amenities but yet small enough to contribute to an overall convivial atmosphere, and the isolated setting of the campus on top of a hill overlooking the UNESCO World Heritage city of Bath lent a creative atmosphere to the meeting. Delegates were well catered for, and the "Choices" breakfasts provided energy for the morning sessions. Ample tea/coffee breaks provided both the opportunity to replenish energy and to peruse the many multi-disciplinal posters that were on display. The evening program included frequenting several of the excellent local restaurants and pubs and also featured a society reception at the Roman Baths and conference dinner on the University campus, both of which were well attended. Deirdre Gleeson and James Baldini


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