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Table of Contents
Year : 2019  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 44-47

Maqianzi (马钱子Strychnos), A poisonous medicinal native to the Western Regions

Department of Chinese Materia Medica, Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shanghai, China

Date of Web Publication18-Mar-2019

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Baican Yang
Department of Chinese Materia Medica, Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shanghai 201203
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_11_19

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Maqianzi (马钱子Strychnos) is also called “Fanmubie (番木鳖),” “Kushi (苦实)” and “QianJi drug (牵机药).” The alias “Fanmubie” shows its origin and its characteristics. The name of “Kushi” implies its taste and flavor. “Qianji Drug vividly shows the clinical manifestations of the poisoning of Maqianzi. The name of “Maqianzi” is the comprehensive display of its characteristic, toxicity, etc., Maqianzi is famous for its poison, which is often used in the treatment of various intractable diseases. It shows the poison Culture in the Western Regions, meanwhile it also displays the unique charm of Traditional herbs in transforming poison into treasure.

Keywords: Fanmubie, Kushi, Maqianzi (马钱子Strychnos), QianJi drug; poison culture in the Western Regions, use

How to cite this article:
Yang Y, Yang B. Maqianzi (马钱子Strychnos), A poisonous medicinal native to the Western Regions. Chin Med Cult 2019;2:44-7

How to cite this URL:
Yang Y, Yang B. Maqianzi (马钱子Strychnos), A poisonous medicinal native to the Western Regions. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2019 [cited 2022 May 23];2:44-7. Available from: https://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2019/2/1/44/254374

“It can treat typhoid fever and sore throat, and eliminate phlegm. Place it on the tongue to dissolve, and swallow with saliva; or dissolve it in water as a drink.”

-Ben Cao Gang Mu(《本草纲目》 Compendium of Materia Medica)

When it comes to poisons, people always have a feeling of terror and death. Since all kinds of poisons such as Duan Chang Cao (断肠草 Gelsemium elegans), colored snow spiders and life-and-death charms are native to the Western Regions, folks have the saying that extreme poisons all over the world are produced in the Western Regions. Although poisons of the Western Regions in martial-arts novels cannot be verified, Maqianzi (马钱子Strychnos), which has been introduced into the central China via the Silk Road, is still in use today [Figure 1].
Figure 1: Picture of Strychnos(马钱子)

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  Interpretation Of Medical Name Top

The name of Maqianzi was first recorded in Ben Cao Gang Mu (《本草纲目》 Compendium of Materia Medica), in which it says “The vines are born with yellow flowers in summer. It is green when unripe and full red when ripe and it looks like Mubie (木鳖 Momordica cochinchinensis, A kind of herb). Its nucleus is smaller than the Mubie and its color is white [Figure 2].” In fact, as early as before the Tang and Song Dynasties (唐宋), Maqianzi has been introduced into China as a poison. People gave different names to Maqianzi in the process of knowing about and applying it, such as “Fanmubie (番木),” “Kushi (苦实),” and “Qianji Drug (牵机药),” in terms of their origin, appearance, taste and toxicity.
Figure 2: Strychnos and Momordica are similar in shape and color. (Left: Strychnos; Right: Momordica)

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Interpretation of alias

The name of “Fanmubie” emphasizes on its origin and its characteristics. Shuo Wen Jie Zi (《说文解字》 Origin of Chinese Characters) says that “The original meaning of 'Fan' is animal's claw,” which has a certain belittle meaning. From ancient times to the present, the feudal emperors has regarded the countries they ruled as the supreme heavenly kingdoms, and regarded ethnic minorities and foreign nationalities other than the Han as uncultivated barbaric nationalities, with the words “fanguo (番国),” “fanbang (番邦),” etc., following. When it comes to the origin of Maqianzi, Ben Cao Gang Mu says: “It is born in Huihui (回回) nation, namely, today's Arabarea, and is now everywhere in the western soil of Dengzhou (邓州).” Maqianzi was introduced into central China fromthen “fanbang.” Besides, the name of fanmubie also originates from the Mubie because they share similar size and shape-flat and round, or slightly triangular shell, with a slightly bulging shape in the middle.

“Kushi” embodies the characteristic of its taste and flavor. “Ku (苦) “ means bitter in Chinese. The seed of Maqianzi is used as medicine, and it is usually raised on one side, and the other side is slightly concave. The taste is extremely bitter, so it is called “kushi.”

“Qianji Drug” vividly shows the clinical manifestations of the poisoning of Maqianzi. “Qianji (牵机) “ originally refers to a structure that drives the shuttle when hand-woven. According to the records in Mo Ji (宋代王铚《默记》, compiled by Wang Shuo in the Song Dynasty), the victim poisoned by Qianji Durg tends to sometimes clench his fists and sometimes unfold his fists, with his head bending or tilting and twitching forward, and he cannot stand straight, which is like a working weaving shuttle that never stops [Figure 3]. Then he ends up dying with foot-to-foot contact. It is also one of the poisons that ancient emperors grant to courtiers and concubines if he wants them to die.
Figure 3: Picture of Qian Ji (牵机, A structure that drives the shuttle when hand-woven)

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Interpretation of Strychnos

Li Shizhen (李时珍)said in Ben Cao Gang Mu, “Its appearance is very similar to the “lianqian (连钱)” hanging on the neck of the horse (“ma” in Chinese), so it is called maqian (马钱).[1]” Lianqian refers to two ancient coins joined together without being chipped [Figure 4]. In the Qing Dynasty (清代), Lu Zhao (鲁照) explained the function of Maqianzi in Chuan Ya Bu《串雅补》 The Sequel of Chuan Ya). He said: “with the name of “maqian (马前),” this herb has great properties in passing through the whole body without sticking to one place, it can drill the sinews and penetrate the bones, regulate meridians and collaterals and cure the numbness, the pain of joints and rheumatoid disease.” Another explanation for the name of “Maqianzi” is to emphasize the intensity of its toxicity. Since “money” and “before” are both called “qian” in Chinese. An old folk vividly says: “Ate before the horse and died after the horse.” That is to say, the herb is named Maqianzi because it is highly poisonous and can cause death after swallowing it for a while. Besides, a mace (Another homonym of the Chinese word “qian”) should be the smallest dosage unit in ancient times, and there is a saying that “one mace is worthless.” A single mace (3.73 g) Maqianzi can poison a horse to death, from which its toxicity is evidently exposed.
Figure 4: Picture of Lianqian (连钱, Two ancientcoins jointed together without being chipped)

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Therefore, Maqianzi and its other names, “Fanmubie,” “Kushi “ and “Qianji Drug,” are essentially derived from its morphological characteristics and toxicity, and constantly tell the historical vicissitudes of poison culture in the Western Regions.

Maqianzi and its poison culture in the Western Regions

In Shen Diao Xia Lv (《神雕侠侣》 Legends of the Condor Heroes), the colored snow spider (彩雪蛛) is produced on the top of the snow mountain in Tibet (西藏). It shares the same size with the wine cup. It is colorful and one of the three most poisonous spiders in the world.

In Yi Tian Tu Long Ji (《倚天屠龙记》 The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber), a monk from the Western Regions dedicated a poison powder called Shi Xiang Ruan Jin powder (十香软筋散) to King Ruyang (汝阳王). This kind of poison is colorless and odorless. After digesting it, victim's bones and muscles become weak and his internal force is useless.

In Tian Long Ba Bu(《天龙八部》 The Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils), Ding Chunqiu (丁春秋) poisons Xinghe Su (苏星河) and Master Xuannan (玄难) with a poison called “San Xiao Xiao Yao powder (三笑逍遥散),” which is characterized by the strange smile on the face of the poisoned person, and then dies after three times of laughter [Figure 5].
Figure 5: Louis Cha (金庸, 1924-2018), Many of the poison were originated in the Western Regions in his martial-art novels, such as (《神雕侠侣》 Legends of the Condor Heroes)

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Why are so many strange and highly poisonous drugs native to the Western Regions? Obviously, it is inseparably related to the bad ecological environment in the Western Regions(西域). The poor water and mountains there not only facilitate the growth of all kinds of poisonous creatures, but also make it possible for human beings to produce and use poisons [Figure 6].
Figure 6: Picture of the Western Regions(西域)

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As a highly toxic herb, the toxic effects of Maqianzi have been widely recognized and applied in nations in the Western Regions since ancient times. In ancient times, it was often used as a poison to kill rats. It was also used to kill criminals or to murder people for money. For example, in Ji Du Shan Bo Jue (《基督山伯爵》 The Count of Monte Cristo), the, the French Alexandre Dumas described that the beautiful and greedy prosecutor's wife uses Maqianzi to kill four lives for huge amount of fortunes [Figure 7].
Figure 7: Alexandre Dumas pere (1802-1870), the author of “The Count of Monte Cristo”

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After being introduced into China, Maqianzi killed many people as a poison, among which the most famous was Li Yu (李煜), the king of the Southern Tang Dynasty(南唐) [Figure 8]. In 975, Li Yu was captured and surrendered to the Song dynasty. On one night of the Mid-Autumn festival, he looked up at the bright moon in the sky and wrote down a famous poem, Yu Mei Ren (《虞美人》 Yu, the Lady of Beauty). After Song Emperor Zhao Guangyi (赵广义) read his word, he felt Li Yu's nostalgia for the good life of the past, and his unwillingness to be a prisoner. He thought Li Yu wanted to make a comeback and this would be a big worry. So, in a moonlit night, he sent Li Yu a pot of poison wine containing Maqianzi to poison him to death.
Figure 8: Li Yu (李煜,937–978), the Emperor of the Southern Tang Dynasty, It is said that he was poisoned to death by the wine containing Strychnos

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The understanding and use of the toxicity of medicinal Maqianzi have experienced a process from “nontoxic” to “toxic” and even “greatly toxic.” In Ben Cao Gang Mu, it was first recorded that Maqianzi is “bitter, cold and nontoxic.” In Ben Cao Hui Yan (《本草汇言》 Collection of the Commentaries on the Materia Medica), it is pointed out that Maqianzi is “poisonous.”[2] Ben Cao Yuan Shi(《本草原始》 Origin of the Materia Medica) records that it is “sweet, cold, and poisonous,” “If birds are poisoned by Maqianzi, they feel numb and contracture. If dogs are poisoned, they feel spasmodic pains in the bowels. If people take it by mistake, it causes all limbs convulsive.”[3] Yi Xue Zhong Zhong Can Xi Lu (《医学衷中参西录》) Discourses of Traditional Chinese and Western Medicine in Combination) records that it is “highly poisonous.”[4] As a member of the poison culture in the Western Regions, the medicinal value of Maqianzi is also centered around its toxicity.

The function of Maqianzi

Maqianzi is famous for its toxicity, which is often used in the treatment of various intractable diseases. Its most important characteristics and applications are achieved by taking unblocked transmission. Zhang Xichun (张锡纯) has a deep understanding of this: “the toxicity of Maqianzi is very strong, and its function of dredging the channels and collaterals and going through the joint is far stronger than other drugs.” Its application is mainly centered around two aspects: promoting circulation and expelling toxicity.[5]

Obstruction of collaterals (络脉不通证)

If the collaterals are impassable, the blood will not be freely circulated, and various diseases follow such as rheumatism, numbness, hemiplegia, facial paralysis, bruises, swelling pain and so on. Maqianzi does well in taking unblocked transmission and can ease rheumatoid arthritis symptoms by dredging the channels and collaterals and penetrating joints and unblocking blood.

Toxic accumulation (毒积证)

Maqianzi, as a drug of great toxicity, is good for taking unblocked transmission. For some diseases caused by the accumulated toxins, such as carbuncle and cancer, Maqianzi can not only combat poison by virtue of its toxicity, but also reduce the swelling with the characteristic of taking unblocked transmission. Clinically, the treatment for such diseases is very effective. Whether it is for internal or external use, it has high application value.

“Use it inappropriately, one's life will be shortened; use it properly, severe lingering diseases may be cured.” Native to Huihui nation, Maqianzi shares the same shape with the connected-coins, either seizing one's life or curing diseases and saving one's life with its great toxicity. It constantly unveiled the mysterious veil of the poison culture in the Western regions.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Shenzhen L. Compendium of Materia Medica. Beijin: People's Medical Publishing House; 1982. p. 1250.  Back to cited text no. 1
Zhumo N. Collection of the Commentaries on the Materia Medica. Beijin: TCM Ancient Books Publishing House; 2005. p. 243.  Back to cited text no. 2
Zhongli L. Origin of the Materia Medica. Beijin: Academy Press; 2011. p. 274-5.  Back to cited text no. 3
Xichun Z. Discourses of Traditional Chinese and Western Medicine in Combination. Hebei; Hebei Science and Technology Press; 2002. p. 203.  Back to cited text no. 4
Tingmo Z, Cheng P. Chinese Clinical Pharmacy. Beijing: People's Medical Publishing House; 2015. p. 765-7.  Back to cited text no. 5


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3], [Figure 4], [Figure 5], [Figure 6], [Figure 7], [Figure 8]

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