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Table of Contents
Year : 2018  |  Volume : 1  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 81-83

Styrax, emperor's cream from the Western Regions

1 Department of Nephrology, Yueyang Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine Affiliated to Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shanghai, China
2 Department of Chinese Materia Medica, Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shanghai, China

Date of Web Publication9-Oct-2018

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Tianwen Yao
Department of Nephrology, Yueyang Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine Affiliated to Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shanghai
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_25_18

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Styrax is also called “emperor's cream” and “consciousness-regaining spice.” The alias “emperor's cream” shows its rarity and preciousness with a strong aroma, and another name of “consciousness-regaining spice” implies its functions of active brain and regaining consciousness, dispelling filth with aroma, and relieving pain. The name of “Styrax” displays its complex productive progress and place of origin. With thick quality, heavyweight, and fragrant smesll, Styrax gets further application in beauty, skin care, clothes fumigating, and health keeping after introduced into the Central Plains (central China) from the Western Regions. The name of Styrax not only embodies the mellow appeal of spice culture in the Western Regions but also suggests the history of relationship between foreign culture and traditional Chinese medicine. Furthermore, it indicates the broad mind of “all rivers running into sea” and inclusiveness of Chinese culture.

Keywords: Consciousness-regaining spice, emperor's cream, functions, spice culture in the Western Regions, Styrax

How to cite this article:
Yao T, Yang B. Styrax, emperor's cream from the Western Regions. Chin Med Cult 2018;1:81-3

How to cite this URL:
Yao T, Yang B. Styrax, emperor's cream from the Western Regions. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2018 [cited 2022 Jun 29];1:81-3. Available from: https://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2018/1/2/81/242579

Styrax, sweet in flavor, warm in nature and non-toxic, can ward off evil, kill ghost, malaria, poison and get rid of three worms. In addition, it can clear away pathogen, and dispel nightmares. People who take it for a long time can thoroughly understand the law of nature, and even keep comfortable and longevity.

Ming Yi Bie Lu[1] (《名医别录》 Supplementary Records of Famous Physicians)

Along the Silk Road, spices including Styrax are introduced from the Western Region to China with tributary system and trade. They become an essential part of people's lives because of their unique functions, such as cleaning environment, repelling insects, making wine, and sacrificing to ancestors. As a foreign medicine, the name of Styrax not only shows the influences of the Western Region on traditional Chinese medicine but also reflects the connotation of spice culture in the Western Regions.

  Interpretation Of Medical Name Top

Styrax is one of the resin-composed spices first introduced to China. It was widely used in the Eastern Han Dynasty and well respected during that period. Styrax as a medicine can trace back to Wei, Jin, the Northern and Southern dynasties, first emerged in the medical book Ming Yi Bie Lu (《名医别录》 Supplementary Records of Famous Physicians).[2] For thousands of years, Styrax has been famous not only for its wide ranges of applications but also for its particular morphologic characteristics and efficacy. Consequently, some interesting alias names are generated such as “emperor's cream” and “consciousness-regaining spice.”

Interpretation of alias

The alias “emperor's cream” [Figure 1] vividly displays the characteristics of Styrax. Cream originally means melted animal oil, with features of thick quality, heavyweight, and strong fragrance that can move freely. Emperor is on half of power and rule. On the one hand, most of spices including Styrax are produced from many distant countries in the Western Regions. As a result, Styrax is getting rare and precious, which gradually becomes luxuries of the noble. On the other hand, Styrax can emit a strong aroma called “the emperor of spices.”
Figure 1: Styrax has the alias of “emperor's cream”

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The name of “consciousness-regaining spice” visually describes the strong efficacy of Styrax, which is usually used in emergency and severe illness because it can keep the brain active, regain consciousness, and resurrect the dead. Dongfang Shuo (东方朔) in Han dynasty once recorded a legend in Hai Nei Shi Zhou Ji (《海内十洲记》 Introductions of Ten Regions) that “near 88 BC, hundreds of people living in Chang'an suffered from a rarely-seen disease, and the most of them didn't make it. The Emperor made an attempt to burn the tributary spice from Yuezhi in the city. It was amazing that people with unconsciousness for less than three months all came back to consciousness and the fragrance lasted for three months.”[3] In fact, what the Emperor burned was Styrax precisely [Figure 2].
Figure 2: The emperor burned Styrax to save people's lives

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Interpretation of Styrax

In Chinese characters, Styrax names after spice which originally describes the sweetness and fragrance of cereals.[4] As one of the spices used in China, Styrax was recorded firstly in Hou Han Shu Xi Yu Zhuan (《后汉书·西域传》 History of the Later Han Dynasty·Records on Western Regions) that “home to the Kingdom of Daqin (大秦), Styrax was made of different spices.” The Kingdom of Daqin was the Roman Empire. Hence, Styrax was originally native only to the Roman Empire and was decocted by numerous mixed spices. Then, it was introduced to China along the great Silk Road. However, Shizhen Li (李时珍) had different opinions on the names of Styrax. He considered that this spice was from the Kingdom of Shuhe, which is Iran nowadays. As a matter of fact, Styrax is the resin of a local tree. Usually, local people will cut into the barks deeply with a knife in early summer to improve the secretion of resins. When the autumn comes, the barks are removed and ground to generate the resins. The purity of resins relies on technology [Figure 3]. If people just remove impurities, only crude products can be obtained. After crude products are dissolved in alcohol and filtered for distillation, the refined product will be acquired.[5] To some extent, the complex productive progress endows Styrax with a stronger fragrance.
Figure 3: Local people will cut into the barks deeply improve the secretion of resins

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Emperor's cream, consciousness-regaining spice, or Styrax describes its particular morphologic characteristics and fragrance, making Styrax a significant part of spice culture in the Western Regions.

  Styrax and Spice Culture in the Western Regions Top

It is well known that spices are daily necessities for people living in the Western Regions. Spices are not only used widely in cosmetics, seasoning, and antiseptic but also play an important role in warding off diseases, keeping personal and public hygiene. Zhang Qian (张骞) in Han dynasty served as an envoy to the Western Regions [Figure 4]. As a result, the Silk Road, a significant trade route throughout the Middle Asia, was carved out. With frequent trade transactions, exotic spices were spread to the Central Plains and gradually influence daily life and medical activity. For instance, the princes and aristocrats used spices in burning incense, fumigating clothes, carrying sachets, and so on. Based on the repeated practice and deep understanding about different exotic spices, ancient doctors integrated them into the treasure house of traditional Chinese medicine and made them one part of the family.
Figure 4: Qian Zhang (张骞) in Han dynasty served as an envoy to the Western Regions

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The wide application of spices in Western Regions and Western China is closely related to the living habits and environment in this area. People living in Central Asia, Western Asia, and the Western China feed on beef, mutton, and milk and wear heavy clothes mostly made of animal fur. Particularly, businessmen walking along the Silk Road spend the most time with camels and horses [Figure 5], facing water scarcity. Due to less frequent showering, they are inevitably smelly. Animals and plants that can secrete toxins live in the Western Regions because of the natural ecosystems, biodiversity, isolated geographic environment, and extreme hot and cold climate. Those toxins produced by different animals and plants when they grow or die can easily spread in hot, dry, or cold conditions, ultimately resulting in unbearable odor. At this point, some spices including Styrax were inevitably introduced and applied. They became the favorites along the Silk Road and gradually introduced to central plain.
Figure 5: Businessmen walking along the Silk Road spend the most time with camels and horses

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With fragrances, those spices can give body an agreeable scent, lift spirits, and relieve symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, abdomen pain, diarrhea, headache, dizziness, drowsiness, dyspnea, and fatigue. Finally, people's helplessness and panic are reduced by their balmy smell.[6] Undoubtedly, spices such as Styrax are warmly welcomed in exotic areas, which get further application in beauty, skin care, fumigating clothes, and health keeping after introduced into the central plains. Gu Ban (班固), the author of Han Shu (《汉书》 Histories of Han Dynasties), once wrote to his brother Chao Ban (班超), “I wanted to buy horses of Yuezhi (月支) and Styrax at the cost of three hundred white silk”. At this moment, Ban Chao was busy in unifying the Western Regions in Shule (疏勒) area where was the communications hub on the Silk Road and an important trade market between the West and East. Ban Gu was willing to exchange silk made in the Central Plains for Styrax, suggesting the high value of Styrax.

  Functions of Styrax Top

Styrax is featured with unique effects, including diverging, spreading, and moving because of its typical pungent aromas. Its major functions are listed below.

Active brain and regain consciousness

Spiritual activities, consciousness, and thoughts are determined by the heart. If cold-dampness and turbid-phlegm block the heart, people may faint suddenly in the place with trismus, unconsciousness, stiff and cold limbs, and dim face and lips. Symptoms mentioned above are what we call “yin blocked syndrome” or “cold blocked syndrome.” Styrax is pungent, warm, and moving in nature. Hence, it can open every viscera, especially active brain and regain consciousness. As a result, Styrax is known for treating cold blocked syndrome. In clinical practice, Styrax is often used along with musk, benzoin, sandalwood, and agarwood, for example, Styrax Pills. Meanwhile, Styrax can also be used in rescuing the patients with emergencies, such as heatstroke and faint caused by mountainous evil air.

Dispel filth with aroma and relieve pain

With pungent and warming properties, Styrax has the functions of eliminating turbid pathogen with aromatics, removing coldness, and relieving pain. Therefore, it is widely applied to stop pains caused by cold coagulating and qi stagnation, especially the abdominal distention and cold pain due to cold and dampness stasis. Kuo Shen (沈括), one of the most outstanding figures in the scientific history of China, once recorded a medical case in Meng Xi Bi Tan (《梦溪笔谈》 Notes by Mengxi) that “Wang Wenzheng, the Grand Commandant of Northern Song Dynasty, suffered from abdominal distention and cold pain. The Emperor took pity on the minister and sent him with a bottle of medicinal liquor, telling him to take it on an empty stomach. After taking the mysterious liquor, the Grand Commandant was in high spirits and expressed his gratitude to the Emperor the following day. The Emperor told all the civil officials that this liquor was called “Styrax Wine,” which could regulate and harmonize the five internal organs to get rid of abdominal disease. So, just one glass of wine can keep you away from exogenous wind-cold. Besides, Styrax is usually used with borneol and aucklandiae radix to improve its effects of regulating Qi, widening chest, and relieving pain.

Spices have been the important items for tributary system and trade on various ancient roads of east-west communications, such as the Silk Road. Styrax that comes from the Western Regions is used to remove the unfavorable taste in life and also plays a significant role in medical care based on its pungent, warm, and moving features. Undoubtedly, it becomes one of the most popular spices in both eastern and western.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Tao HG. Ming Yi Bie Lu. Beijing: People's Medical Publishing House; 1986.  Back to cited text no. 1
Wang Y, Xu ZP, Wang J, Zou QF, Zhang XL, Liu Y. The overview of styrax. Pharm Clin Chin Mater Med 2013;4:49-52.  Back to cited text no. 2
Shi YT. The Silk Road and import of spices in Han Dynasty. Cent Plains Cult Res 2014;6:59-65.  Back to cited text no. 3
Xu S. Shuo Wen Jie Zi. Beijing: China Drama Publishing House; 2010.  Back to cited text no. 4
Liu P, Yu SS, He XR. The research progress on styrax. Chin J Drug Appl Monit 2010;7:315-7.  Back to cited text no. 5
He W. The custom and tool of burning incense from the pre-Qin period to Qin and Han Dynasty. Cult Relics Cent China 2013;6:51-3.  Back to cited text no. 6


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3], [Figure 4], [Figure 5]

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