Wherein the ancient Chinese know nothing is as breathtaking as elephant bile oral care products.
Bad breath—comics and cartoons feature a multitude of ways to demonstrate the painful effect halitosis can have on others: flowers shriveling and dying as a person breathes on them; faces puckering as people inhale the stench; even stink fumes gushing from the offender’s mouth, forming into a hand, and pummeling innocent by-breathers. The message is clear: you do not want to assault others with stinky breath.
The physicians of ancient China took a whiff of this problem, gave it some thought, and arrived at what seemed to be a sensible answer: make the sufferer from halitosis consume elephant bile to eradicate the malady.
Every Breath You Take
Bile (or gall) is a fluid produced in the liver of most vertebrates, stored in the gallbladder, and released into the intestines to aid in the digestion of fats and removal of worn-out red blood cells. At some point in the years 475–221 BCE, Chinese physicians began using animal bile for the treatment of 52 types of diseases.
A treatise by Lei X. Lei in the 5th century CE is the first to mention using elephant bile, specifically for helping to sharpen vision. David Q-H Wang and Martin C. Cary note that
Upon drying, it was compounded into pills with gallbladder biles of the common carp, bear, ox and musk, plus abalone shell (Haliotis asinina; Shi Jue Ming). These pills were ingested with green tea to treat eye diseases including blindness from optic atrophy, mature cataract, and mild nebulae (corneal opacities), as well as glaucoma.
Elephant bile was also used to treat infectious skin diseases. Since this isn’t mentioned as being dried into pills, I assume it was simply smeared onto the patient as a yellow-brown slime that also served as an intoxicating perfume (or persuaded patients to douse themselves in gallons of additional perfume).
The focus of our decidedly non-scientific treatise, however, is the use of elephant bile to cure halitosis. Mixing bile with water, the physician ordered the patient to gargle the mixture to wash away oral odors. As someone who hates my daily regimen of dental rinse (whether the rinse is flavored as “spearmint,” “wintergreen” or “cinnamon,” all I ever taste is “burn”), I nonetheless can’t imagine that gargling elephantine gall-gunk would taste any better, nor would it make me particularly kissable.
Image: Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride at Disneyland Hong Kong (Source).