Water, Heroes and Donkeys
The Unlikely History of Liaocheng City


Beauty and the Donkey


Yang Yuhuan, a beloved concubine of Emperor Xuanzong (685 - 762), has been paid tribute in many poems. In A Song of Everlasting Sorrow, poet Bai Juyi exalts her creamy, crystalline skin. But another poem unveiled the secret of Yang’s beauty – that of eating ejiao, or donkey-hide collagen.


Ejiao is obtained from donkey hide through soaking and stewing. It was traditionally taken as a medicine for gynecological problems. About 500 years ago, the great Chinese pharmacologist Li Shizhen recorded its utilities in his Compendium of Materia Medica, mentioning its place of origin as Dong’e, a county administrated by Liaocheng City.


The collagen has a history of 2,500 years and been produced in many places, but was always associated with Dong’e. The term ejiao itself literally means, “collagen made in Dong’e.” Popular opinion still holds that Dong’e produces the best ejiao, its most important ingredient being the local water.


Tang Emperor Taizong (599 - 649) commanded a general to guard the ancient well that provided the water for making ejiao, to ensure it remained at the sole disposal of the royal family. The great science writer Shen Kuo (1031-1095) described Dong’e waters as “pure and heavy” in his Dream Pool Essays. In his attempt to analyze the water, Chen Xiuyuan (1753 - 1823) wrote in his book Notes on Shennong Materia Medica: “The pure water is from an underground current originating 1,000 li (500 km) away, hence the water is weightier than other local sources by 10 to 20 percent.”


It was not until the 1980s, when a geological expedition carried out an investigation and ran laboratory tests showing that the underground water originated in the Taishan and Taihang mountains, that its secret was unlocked. Ancient rain fell and seeped into the earth through stone crevices, gradually forming minute underground rivers. After 200 million years, they eventually flowed to Dong’e.


In 2008, the techniques for making Dong’e ejiao were listed in China’s first batch of national intangible cultural heritage. The local government also established a cultural park to promote the medicine, along with healthy lifestyles. The park’s Qing-Dynasty-style architecture and beautiful natural scenery have made it a popular place to shoot films and TV dramas, a case in point being a popular TV series about a herbal medicine merchant whose main character coincidently starts his business by selling Dong’e ejiao.


“A bowl of Ejiao and a cup of sesame; cheeks pink and lips red; the young have zest and the old are in health,” wrote playwright Bai Pu (1226-1306) in praise of ejiao in his play Rain on the Paulownia Tree. As Bai noted, ejiao was not the sole reserve of women. The renowned poet Cao Zhi (192-232) took ejiao regularly and referred to it in his work Flying Dragon as a panacea.


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