Editor’s note: A History of the Korean Ginseng Industry received the 2022 ABC James A. Duke Excellence in Botanical Literature Award in the reference/technical category.
I love ginseng (Panax spp., Araliaceae). I have eaten it, drunk it in teas, and taken dietary supplements made from it for about 50 years. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, I was a wholesaler of herbs and herbal products and started with Korean ginseng (P. ginseng), also known as Asian ginseng. During my first trip to Asia in 1980, I attended the International Ginseng Symposium in Seoul, South Korea. For these and many other reasons, I am profoundly interested in ginseng: its history and traditional uses, mythology, nomenclature, quality issues and adulteration, the increasingly plentiful scientific and clinical literature on it, and more.
This book provides more information about Asian ginseng than any other book in my or the American Botanical Council’s (ABC’s) library. The author, Il-Moo Chang, PhD, professor emeritus in the College of Pharmacy at Seoul National University, is a noted ginseng expert and former director of the Korean Ginseng Research Institute. Despite its deep scholarship, A History of the Korean Ginseng Industry is not heavily technical, which will allow many herbal medicine enthusiasts to read it, enjoy it, and derive benefit. It is illustrated with graphics from historical and scientific publications, photos, classic texts on Asian ginseng and other traditional medicinal plants, and more.
Readers should not misinterpret the book’s scope based on the title. It covers much more than the history and emergence of the robust ginseng industry in Korea and deals primarily with ginseng from the Korean experience, while also providing some information on American ginseng (P. quinquefolius).
The book is divided into seven chapters:
1. Korean Ginseng: Representative Commercial Crop of Korea
2. Korean People: The First Group of Humans to Have Ginseng as Food
3. Secret of the Panacea: From Food to Medicine
4. Great Inventions: Cultivation and Preparation of Red Ginseng
5. The Ginseng Business and Trade of the Joseon Dynasty
6. Establishment of Joseon’s Ginseng Industry 1800–1945
7. Government-Led Ginseng Industry and Privatization
Chapters 2 and 3, in which the author traces the history of ginseng as a food and beverage and its development into a fabled traditional remedy, are my favorite. This documentation of ginseng’s traditional use as a health-promoting food provides a compelling cultural perspective that can influence regulatory determinations in some countries. On my first visit to Seoul, I was amazed at the relative ubiquity of Korean ginseng tea in cafes, restaurants, subway stations — almost everywhere. In Korea, ginseng tea might be as frequently consumed as coffee (Coffea spp., Rubiaceae) is in some Western countries.
Based on my experience in the herb industry in the mid-1970s, Korean “white” ginseng was the only ginseng generally available on the US market during that time. In the late ’70s and early 1980s, “red” ginseng products started becoming available in the United States.
Red ginseng roots are fresh ginseng roots that have been steamed according to a traditional process. The heat causes the root to turn from its natural off-white color to reddish-brown and changes some of its chemistry (e.g., the ginsenosides, which are biologically active compounds found mainly in the genus Panax). In traditional medicine practices in China, Korea, and Japan, red ginseng is considered “warmer” (i.e., having more of a stimulating effect) than untreated white ginseng. Modern chemical, pharmacological, and clinical research tends to support this.
The steaming process also reportedly allows red ginseng roots to be stored for longer than white ginseng. According to the book, 20-year-old red ginseng extracts were analyzed and found to contain approximately the same level of ginsenosides as fresh red ginseng extracts. Chang’s book elaborates on cultivation and processing methods, modern research, and much more.
After the Korean War (1950–1953), the South Korean government was so focused on developing its ginseng into a viable industry for domestic consumption and export that it created what was formerly known as the Office of Monopoly, a branch of the Korean government that monopolized the cultivation, processing, packaging, and sale of two important commercial plants: Korean red ginseng and tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum, Solanaceae). It is an interesting dichotomy: the government controlled the production and sale of these two plants with very different health considerations. The creation of the office and increasing international exports are important parts of recent Korean ginseng history that are covered in this book.
In the United States in the ’70s, ginseng was sold mainly in health food stores in the form of instant tea granules made from Korean white ginseng extract in a lactose base, capsules or tablets of dried ginseng powder, and dark, viscous concentrated extracts for tea. It appeared that the Korean government was more interested and engaged in promoting Korean-grown-and-processed ginseng than its counterparts in China, where ginseng was formerly found wild and is now extensively cultivated in Manchuria, north and west of the border of North Korea.
Owing to its relatively high price compared to many other herbs, the ginseng market historically has been prone to adulteration and fraud. The author notes this and some of the challenges in the marketplace owing to nomenclatural confusion, as the late Steven Foster detailed extensively in an article in issue 111 of ABC’s journal HerbalGram.1 An image of the cover of that issue is included in the book on page 54.
One reason this book is so unique is its subject. It takes a deep dive into the history of ginseng as a food and its development as a medicine, not just the modern “industry” of ginseng cultivation, harvesting, processing, quality control, marketing, and scientific and clinical research. The book relies on primary historical sources from Korea, China, and Japan, indicating the author’s extensive expertise on the subject. Probably few people in the world are more informed than Chang on so many aspects of the genus Panax.
Chang includes the discovery of American ginseng in North America, its initial trade to China in the early 18th century, and the cultivation of American ginseng in the northern United States and Canada since the late 1800s. He also discusses attempts to produce commercial crops of Asian ginseng in Europe.
The book ends with a narrative of the modernization of the Korean ginseng industry after the Korean War and the establishment of the government-operated Office of Monopoly, about 550 years after the establishment of the Joseon Dynasty (Korea’s last ruling dynasty) and its many efforts to develop ginseng as a tonic food and medicine. The office helped fund modern scientific and clinical research on Korean ginseng root teas and extracts and helped found the Korean Society of Ginseng and the society’s Journal of Ginseng Research (now published by Elsevier and underwritten by the Korea Ginseng Corporation, which took over from the Office of Monopoly). According to Chang, about 5,300 research papers were published on ginseng from 1962 to 2015, with 54% (2,876) on activity and efficacy and 348 of these publications in “clinical study journals.”
This book is replete with images of historical nature, including old book and research report covers; photographs of ginseng farming, root processing, and production in Korean facilities; and much more. One color photographic sequence (pp. 223–229) shows ginseng roots in the steaming process in the Korea Ginseng Corporation’s ultra-modern processing plant. I remember visiting that, or a similar, facility in one of my two visits to South Korea since the 1980 symposium.
A History of the Korean Ginseng Industry is truly deserving of the ABC James A. Duke award for reference/technical books published in 2021.
Mark Blumenthal is the founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council.
- Foster S. Toward an understanding of ginseng adulteration: The tangled web of names, history, trade, and perception. HerbalGram. 2016;111:36-57.