There have been suggestions that the Covid 19 virus originated in a Chinese laboratory. Though these conspiracy theories have all been debunked as speculative nonsense, notions of the Chinese creating poisons and potions have been around for ages. In the novel JINCAN, I describe how a shaman concocts a venom-based toxin in his laboratory — a poison that mimics a real-life disease, in this case, cholera.
Jincan, sometimes referred to as Gu, was an ancient Chinese poison created by combining the venom of various creatures — placing the animals together in a closed container and having them fight to their deaths, consuming each other, with the final victor retaining the concentrated poison of each combatant.
Here is the description in the book:
The shaman’s heart quickened. Jincan, Golden Silkworm, he thought gleefully; an ancient method of creating a powerful venom. Not a silkworm at all, the name was reputed to have originally come from Kashmir. A funerary decoration made from pure gold.
He slipped off the stool and picked up a large earthenware pot from a corner of the room. Grabbing it by its handles, he struggled back to his workbench and lifted the pot onto it. Incantations were painted across the container’s rough beige surface. Under a glass lid, the pot’s flat base was separated into five compartments like upright walls of a five-pointed star, designed for ease of removal as a single piece.
Wu turned to the jars lining the walls, he ran his gaze over them. Five animals were needed. The task was to combine them, creating a poison that would hold the potency of all five creatures at once. The next step was to select which creatures were to be used to create the Jincan.
It was to be a gladiatorial contest, each of the quintet fighting for survival by using its particular lethality. For it to be a proper battle, it was essential to select creatures that were well-matched in size and potency. His excitement mounted at the thought of watching such a competition. He went to his jars of animals and peered into each one, moving sideways slowly, occasionally pausing to touch a jar and consider the suitability of its inhabitants.
Selection made, he picked up a pair of bamboo tongs and went first to a container that had been fashioned into a terrarium. He removed the dewy enclosure’s glass cover and used the tongs to brush aside thick leaves inside it. Not seeing the animal he wanted, he turned the leaves over one at a time until he spotted a frog hidden at the bottom of the miniature rain forest. The bright blue amphibian with a blackish mottled back was no larger than the upper section of his thumb. It didn’t try to escape when he gripped it with the tongs. The little frog’s back contained a powerful venom that native tribes of China’s mountainous areas used to poison the tips of their arrows. A speck of it was enough to kill a man. He released the frog into a compartment of the the pot and covered it.
Wu chose a wolf spider next. It took more effort to catch the fleet-footed arachnid. But with the aid of a set of smaller tongs, he managed to grab hold one of its legs and tug it from its lair, a small hole in a rock. He examined the feisty warrior before putting it into a compartment next to the frog.
The next two creatures were a centipede with a red back and yellow legs, and a black scorpion. As his final competitor, Wu selected a creature that lived in his garden: a wasp. Wu went out to the hive that was in a tree in the far corner of his garden. He lit an oily rag below the hive, grey smoke drove off most of the hive’s residents; the few left behind were dazed and docile. He grabbed one carefully by its back and returned to his workroom. At his bench, taking great care not to injure the body of the sluggish insect, he carefully snipped off its wings and placed it in the last compartment.
In nature, these animals, each from quite a different habitat were unlikely to come across one another. If they did, their instincts would likely be to avoid each other. Except for the wasp that had woken up and was batting the stubs of its clipped wings about angrily, ready to jab its sting into anything and everything, they had no reason to fight. Wu had to give them one. He hopped off his perch and went to his medicine cabinet. This yaochu had been passed down through several generations of medicine men. It held 42 drawers each marked with what it contained. He hooked his forefinger through a metal loop and pulled open one of the square drawers. Rifling through a stack of neatly arranged paper packets he found one with the character chán 饞, gluttony, written on its front.
Wu uncovered the pot and sprinkled a substance resembling white pepper onto each of his combatants. The powder’s odor made his stomach gurgle. His mind filled with images of his favorite dishes, those of his childhood prepared by his mother and meals shared with intimate friends.
The animals reacted instantaneously, moving about their little cells in search of food. Wu lifted the glass lid and removed the partition before quickly closing it again.
The frog, normally a creature that waited patiently to flick its tongue out at a passing ant or baby cricket, was first on the attack. Oblivious to its own safety, it went for the noisy wasp, clamping its toothless mouth over the head, intent on gobbling it down. The wasp moved its tail around and jabbed repeatedly at the frog. The black scorpion rushed at the fighting duo and grabbed the business end of the wasp with its pincers and began to gnaw at whatever part of the animal it could, striking and injecting venom from its own tail. Locked in combat, the three creatures rolled about. All the while, the frog continued to secrete poison from sacs on its back, smearing the pot’s bottom with a toxic paste. They tumbled into the centipede which wrapped itself round the scorpion and attacked indiscriminately with its poisonous bite. The eight-eyed wolf spider leapt onto the centipede, and now the combatants were a writhing ball, gnashing, stinging and biting — entangled in spider silk, thrashing about in poisonous puddles. They fought until one at a time, each of the animals succumbed to its wounds. Even as they died, so strong was the desire to eat that through their dying breaths, they continued trying to gorge themselves on one another.
In the end, the Pyrrhic victor was the wolf spider. Wu sprinkled more of the powder onto it. Though nearly dead, the spider continued eating, well beyond what it was capable of. This was the important part, for after gorging itself on its foes, the main ingredient of Jincan had to be harvested: the victor’s feces.