Evan Mantyk, Contributing Editor
The gourd is intimately linked to the culture of Daoist spiritual cultivation. Legends of the Daoist immortal and sage Hu Weng (壺翁) saving people during plagues and the origin of the idiom “helping the world with a gourd” (“懸壺濟世”), all revolve around the gourd as a vessel for carrying medicine.
Hu Weng often traveled to the Ru'nan region in Henan, China, carrying a gourd filled with medicine. Nobody in the local market recognized him. His practice mainly involved selling the medicine from his gourd, and he never haggled over prices. However, his medicine cured ailments without fail.
When selling his medicine, he would tell the patients to swallow it and vomit up something, after which they would recover from their illnesses later on. People followed his instructions, and each case proved successful.
Word of his miraculous cures spread far and wide, and Hu Weng's business thrived. He earned a significant income every day. However, most of the money he earned was used to help the poor and hungry in the market. Hu Weng hung his gourd under the eave of his house. When the sun set his gourd was empty, and he would disappear into it.
There was a local official in charge of managing the market named Fei Changfang. He observed Hu Weng's actions from an upstairs window and realized that Hu Weng was no ordinary person; he must be a highly cultivated individual.
Being inherently virtuous and reverent towards Heaven and the Dao, Fei Changfang desired to become Hu Weng's disciple to learn the Dao. Every day, he tirelessly cleaned the ground in front of Hu Weng's seat, provided him with food and drink, and Hu Weng graciously accepted it all. This continued for a long time, and Fei Changfang remained respectful and never made any demands.
Finally, one day, Hu Weng spoke, saying, "Tonight, when there is no one around, come to me." As evening fell, Fei Changfang came as agreed. Hu Weng said, "I am going to enter this gourd now. Are you willing to come with me? If you want to enter, just jump in after me." Following Hu Weng's instructions, Fei Changfang jumped into the gourd.
Once inside, Fei Changfang was amazed. Although the gourd appeared small from the outside, inside, it was like a world with pavilions, towers, and exquisite architecture. There were colorful bridges and rainbows, creating a beautiful scene. Hu Weng explained, "I was originally a celestial being in Heaven, but due to my negligence in handling official duties, I was demoted to the mortal realm. You are a person with a good foundation, which is why you have encountered me and seen all of this."
Fei Changfang humbly bowed and said, "I am an ordinary person immersed in worldly affairs. To receive your compassion and guidance is an immense blessing." Eventually, Hu Weng gave Fei Changfang a sealed talisman and said, "With this talisman, you can command spirits and gods, serve as a messenger of Heaven, and heal illnesses and avert disasters."
Hu Weng agreed to Fei Changfang's request, but Fei's journey of cultivation was quite tortuous. We will elaborate on his experiences in the next article.
After mastering the Daoist arts, Fei Changfang carried on the legacy of Hu Weng, practicing medicine while carrying a gourd. He became a renowned physician of his time. Thus, traditional Chinese medicine, in addition to being known as qihuang (岐黃), qingnang (青囊), and xinglin (杏林), also bears the name xuanhu (懸壺), signifying the gourd that doctors carried at their waists and hung outside their clinics as a symbol of their profession.
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