Many aspects of Chinese culture can trace their origins to the divine, and medicine is no exception. In ancient times, there’s a certain phrase that describes the practice of a great physician–xuanhu jishi, or “to hang a gourd and save the world.” Here is its origin.
A Special Gourd
This story is documented in numerous history books, such as Hou Hanshu (Book of the Later Han) and Taiping Yulan.
Hu Gong, who lived in the Han Dynasty, practiced medicine in the area of Runan (in today’s Henan Province) and always carried a gourd. He would sell medicine from his gourd in the market, and the price was never negotiable. Nobody knew who he was, just that his medicine always worked.
When selling medicine, Hu Gong would tell the buyer that the patient would spit something out after taking the medicine and would then recover at a certain time later. People followed his words, and things would go exactly as he had predicted.
As people spread the news of this miracle man, more and more people knew about him. Hu Gong’s business ran well and he made lots of money every day. He only kept a small portion of the money and donated the rest to those at the market who suffered from poverty, cold, or hunger.
After sunset, when all his medicine was sold and the gourd was empty, Hu Gong would always hang the gourd under the eaves of someone’s house. Then, he would jump into the gourd and disappear.
Inside the Gourd
Fei Changfang, a lower officer in charge of the market, saw Hu Gong do this and knew he was special and someone who had mastered Taoism.
Thinking of learning from Hu Gong, Fei treated him very well every day, cleaning the floor in front of him and giving him food. Hu Gong accepted his kindness. A long time passed, and Fang was still courteous to Hu Gong.
One day, Hu Gong said to Fei, “When there is no one around, can you come to my place this evening?” After Fei arrived on time, Hu said, “I will jump in the gourd now. Do you want to try? If you want, you can come in too.” As Hu Gong suggested, Fei jumped into the gourd after him.
Once inside, Fei found that the seemingly small gourd held another world inside, with layers after layers of buildings and pavilions that were well decorated. Behind them were beautiful bridges and colorful rainbows, just like a divine land.
Hu Gong said to Fei, “I was actually from a divine land. Because I slacked off in doing my duties, I was demoted to this human world. You have very good inborn quality. That is why you can meet me and see all of this.”
Fei kowtowed to him and replied, “I am a filthy person from this secular world. I am indeed fortunate to receive your pity and teachings.” Hu Gong said, “You are a very good person, but please do not tell anyone else about what you saw.”
Many aspects of Chinese culture can trace their origins to the divine, and medicine is no exception. In ancient times, there’s a certain phrase that describes the practice of a great physician – xuanhu jishi, or “to hang a gourd and save the world.” Here is its origin.
A Wine Jug
After returning from the gourd, Fei began to learn the Tao from Hu Gong.
Hu Gong went to visit Fei and they went to a tavern. Hu Gong said, “I have some wine downstairs. We can drink together.” Fei asked a servant to bring the wine jug upstairs, but the servant found it too heavy to move. Several more people tried to help him lift the jug, but it still didn’t budge. In the end, a dozen people all tried to lift the jug only to find it was absolutely immovable.
The servant returned and told them the story. Without saying a word, Hu Gong went downstairs, picked up the jug with one finger, and carried it upstairs. Those who saw this were shocked and in awe with admiration.
Hu Gong and Fei then began to drink. The jug appeared to hold only about four cups, but they drank all day and still didn’t empty it.
To learn the Tao in ancient times, one had to pass many tests set by the master before true teachings would be imparted.
One day Hu Gong said to Fei, “I am going on a journey in a few days. Will you go with me?”
Fei wasn’t too concerned, other than about what his family would think. “Is there a way to keep my family from finding out about this?” he asked.
“That’s easy,” replied Hu Gong, who picked up a green bamboo stick and continued, “Please take this home and tell your family you are sick. Place this bamboo stick in your bed and then leave quietly.”
Fei followed the instructions he was given and then returned to Hu Gong. His family was shocked to discover a “dead” Fei lying in his bed. They cried and buried his body.
Meanwhile, the real Fei ended up in the middle of a circle of roaring tigers, Hu Gong, nowhere to be found. Although the tigers were fierce and were about to bite him, Fei kept calm and stood still. After a while, the tigers vanished.
The next day, Hu Gong led Fei to a cave where he saw a huge rock hanging from the ceiling by a thatched rope right over his head. From out of nowhere, many snakes appeared and started biting on the rope, but Fei did not react at all.
Hu Gong soon reappeared, patted Fei on the shoulder, and said, “You are teachable.”
Hu Gong then handed Fei a sealed scroll.
“With this you can call upon deities and ghosts, as well as cure illnesses and drive away disasters.”
Noticing that Fei was worried about getting home, Hu Gong took out a bamboo stick and said, “Ride on this and you will return home.”
Fei bid farewell to Hu Gong and rode the bamboo stick. As if waking from a dream, he opened his eyes and found himself already at home.
His family, however, was frightened and thought he was a ghost, so Fei told them the entire story. After his family opened his coffin, they saw only a bamboo stick inside. They relaxed and believed him.
Although Fei thought that he had only followed Hu Gong for about a day, his family said he had been gone for a year. When he discarded the bamboo stick that he rode on in a bamboo forest, it transformed into an azure dragon and flew away.
After that, Fei often did good deeds by helping people eliminate demons and cure illnesses. Every single patient he treated recovered. Sometimes when he spoke with a patient, he would raise his voice. But based on his demeanor, he did not seem to be upset with his patients. Later on, he would explain that he was angry at the ghost behind the patient and not the patients themselves.
Fei later went to the East Sea, which had been under a drought for three years. He said to the people who prayed for rain, “Because the East Sea Deity was lustful towards the wife of Gebei Jun, I detained him for litigation. Somehow I forgot about it and caused this drought. I will pardon him and it will rain soon.”
Fei’s magical skills were quite remarkable. For example, he could take a thousand-mile-long mountain and miniaturize it, placing it in front of people like a potted landscape with details. He could also restore the mountain to its original size.