The Ginseng Hunters: Ginseng Digging in North America and the Image of Ginseng Diggers

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Soon after its discovery in the Canadian woods in the early 18th century, American Ginseng(Panax quinquefolius), became the most valuable export item for North America. America after the Independence designated ginseng along with furs as its specialties to overcome the serious adverse balance of trade with China. While Canada and America continued to be two of the largest producers of ginseng in the World Market to these days, American history tends to conceal the economical importance of ginseng and the academic discourse on ginseng has been dominated by East Asian scholars mainly focusing on Korean ginseng(Panax ginseng).

This article, aiming to redress this noticeable asymmetry, restores the history of
ginseng digging and also analyzes the images of the ginseng hunters. Native Americans engaged in ginseng trade in the earlier phase of ginseng boom, but this industry soon fell into white men’s hands. While they accumulated knowledge about the selectiveness of ginseng habitat and complicated process of its clarification, the Americans could not reach the Chinese standard of ginseng curing.

After the Civil War, many progressive journalists from the North drew the ginseng diggers into the narratives on the Southern backwardness. They portrayed ginseng hunters as idle, resisting settlement, isolated, and wretched class of poor white. The irrational and anti-civilizational traits projected to the ginseng hunters with Orientalistic gaze were analogous to the mysterious and enchanting aura surrounding ginseng. And the place where people depended their lives entirely on this plant became a sort of internal colony. To America, the final destination of ginseng has always been China and the ginseng hunters were perceived as a different race who could not be assimilated into mainstream American culture.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)169-203
Number of pages35
JournalThe Journal of the Humanities
Publication statusPublished - 2018 Aug

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • General Medicine


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