Pig farming isn’t exactly a glamorous occupation. Like many agricultural jobs it’s hard work offering relatively little reward. So nobody would expect a small-scale country farmer to ever achieve riches. Yet that’s exactly what happened to one villager in China, who unexpectedly landed himself a fortune while just going about his daily business.
China may have a rapidly growing economy, but rural life in the country is still far from easy. In fact, many villagers still live beneath the poverty line and struggle for basic necessities. Furthermore, education in some areas is woefully underfunded. Indeed, it is estimated that in places, less than half the population attended high school.
The income gap between urban and rural dwellers in China is vast. In 2016 the average disposable income for a city family was about $5,200 a year, but in rural areas it was just $1,900. In fact, most farmers grow just enough for their own household’s needs. Within villages, families often still lead basic lives in wooden houses, although many now enjoy modern conveniences like televisions.
It’s not surprising, then, that large numbers of young Chinese people are abandoning country life for the cities. Once they find work, many then divert a part of their wages to their older relatives back in the village. Agriculture is still a way of life in these rural areas, where farmers grow crops or raise livestock.
For those farmers involved in rearing animals, pigs are a popular choice. There are thought to be around 40 million pig farms in China, with the majority being run on a small-scale basis. It’s a tough life, though, and with increased regulation and reduced subsidies many farmers are now giving it up.
One man who has stuck it out is 51-year-old Bo Chunlou. He’s a pig farmer in Ju County in China’s Shandong Province. In August 2017, Chunlou was slaughtering an eight-year-old sow when he made a life-changing discovery. In the gallbladder of the 550-pound pig he came across what looked like a bundle of fur. But actually, it was something else. In fact, what Chunlou discovered was a 4-inch by 2.7-inch object known as a bezoar.
Bezoars can form in the digestive system of both humans and animals. The objects are made up of both partially digested and undigested material such as plant matter and hair. Chunlou probably didn’t expect the fibrous lump to make him rich, but he did think it was unusual enough to show the neighbors. The villagers subsequently informed him that the the bezoar would have great value to practitioners of Chinese medicine.
Chunlou was at first sceptical that his hairy block would be so desirable to anyone, but eventually he was convinced. So, he and his 26-year-old son, Bo Mingxue, traveled more than 350 miles to Shanghai to have it valued. By then they were confident enough in the bezoar’s worth to shell out some $6,000 to have it officially appraised.
It turned out that the pig’s bezoar was well worth the investment of their time and money – and then some. Incredibly, the Bos were told that their palm-sized treasure was worth at least $605,000. Not bad for something pulled out of a sow’s gallbladder – but then Chinese medicine can be very lucrative when it comes to highly-prized ingredients.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has been practiced in China for hundreds of years and still remains popular today. Indeed, Chairman Mao himself gave the custom his approval, despite his own skepticism towards it. Moreover, much like pharmacies in the West, TCM shops can readily be found in towns and cities all over China. The stores stock a wide variety of herbal- and animal-based remedies.
In fact, TCM is such big business in China that it is currently valued at more than $120 billion. Indeed, it is responsible for a third of of the country’s pharmaceutical output. The deputy chief of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, Wang Guoqiang, says this is a result of government’s support of the industry, as well as its increased global popularity.
“I’ve been to some countries and many state leaders mentioned they wished to import TCM to their own country,” Wang said at a conference in 2016. “Their awareness and recognition of TCM is continuously rising.” However traditional Chinese medicine is not without controversy.
Moreover, if there’s one thing most people know about TCM, it’s the varied and sometimes bizarre nature of its ingredients. Animal testicles, horns, hornets’ nests and crocodile jaws are just some of the components used in the practice. Even human by-products like feces, dandruff and earwax are occasionally prescribed in traditional medicine. Fortunately, though, they are rarely used today.
The biggest controversy surrounding TCM, though, is its use of endangered animal parts. The demand for these ingredients is such that the only illegal trades that do more business are those involving drugs and weapons. Sadly, the market for products from at-risk species is worth a colossal $20 billion a year, which is terrible news for rare wildlife. Another aspect of TCM that is often criticized is the use of cruel methods, such as bear bile farms, to extract the desired ingredients.
As for bezoars, well, their medicinal use was once not only limited to TCM. In the past, it was widely believed that the stones would act as effective remedies against poison. Anyone suspicious of their drink, then, only had to drop a bezoar into the glass to render its contents harmless, if a bit yucky.
In fact, bezoars were once so valued that they were found among the treasures of a sunken galleon, the Nuestra Senora de Atocha. But are they effective at neutralizing poison? Surprisingly, a modern study has shown that they can be. Researchers found that when bezoars are put into an arsenic-spiked liquid, the toxins are removed through a chemical reaction.
In traditional Chinese medicine, bezoar stones are normally taken from cows or oxen. Rather than being used as an antidote to poison, though, they are thought to banish evil things from the body. The material is used to treat various illnesses from sore throats to childhood convulsions.
Once the bezoar stone is obtained, TCM practitioners dry it and grind it into a powder. Said to contain various minerals and vitamins, the taste is described as being bitter sweet and refreshing. And as with conventional medicines, there are side effects, among them diarrhea and, ironically, poisoning.
Meanwhile, whether taking bezoar powder offers any real benefits is unclear. Some TCMs have been shown to be effective for certain ailments, but overall there is little evidence in its favor. In fact, there are concerns that China’s TCM push might actually have a damaging effect on the public by promoting traditional over proven modern medicine.
However, as far as Bo Chunlou is concerned, if he wasn’t a fan of traditional Chinese medicine before, he certainly must be now. Armed with his expert certification he has said he will consider bids in excess of $150,000 for his chunk of hairy treasure. So, his chance discovery of the pig’s bezoar will likely mean that he can give up pig farming for good if he wants to. And he may well see out the rest of his days in relative luxury.