I told most of my friends at home that despite the fact that Beijing is an amazing city to live in for six months, the air pollution would surely be suffocating. At the airport I needed to make sure I would be permitted a transfer visa for Taiwan – a country that diplomatically speaking doesn’t exist in China – otherwise my precious six month single entry student visa would be rendered worthless. On my taxi ride to the People’s University of China it struck me: the sky in Beijing was blue. Not just kind of foggy blue, but deep Persian blue. The sun shined bright, though the temperature was freezing.
I had heard that on the streets of Beijing, for a while now, the rage had been dongchong xiacao, or “winter-insect-summer-grass”. When I arrived at the university and met for a cup of hot water with some philosophy students there, I asked them about this caterpillar fungus. As I had understood, the fungus in the brain of this caterpillar, was supposed to have highly beneficial potencies, especially with respect to the enhancement of the libido. Xi Jinping propagates “Chinese medicine” as part of his strategy to use Chinese culture to gain “soft power”. Magical caterpillars are no exception to this strategy.
The caterpillar is found in Yushu, in what is Eastern Tibet, or Xizang as the Chinese call their province. Since the prices skyrocketed with an exponential zeal which would make Bitcoin look pathetic, most of the economic activity of Yushu in the harvest month (May) for the yartsa gunbu, as they call it there, is directed at digging up caterpillars. At peak season, a well experienced gatherer would find about four of them every hour. Collect eighty, however, and they could easily make about $10.000 in the pharmacies of Beijing.
This new Tibetan gold rush has already been condemned by the Dalai Lama, since riots had broken out in the streets of Yushu and shrewd opportunists started manufacturing and selling counterfeit products. The produce is transported and traded between Tibet to the major Chinese urban areas by the Hui, a Chinese ethnic group, who are mostly Muslim. They themselves appear to have no faith in the efficacy of the winter-insect, but understand that trading them is an excellent way of sustaining their families.
My friends at the university in Beijing have heard about the magical dongchong xiacao as well. Students as they are, they are skeptical as well. It seems that certain fads are only seen for what they are by faithful Muslims and philosophy students. “It is just as with the blue skies,” they explain to me. “We call these ‘conference skies’”. They add: “Xi Jinping is tightening things up; some even call him a new dictator.” When Xi supports a caterpillar, prices go through the roof. When Xi presses down on Bitcoin, prices plummet. And when Xi wants the sky to be blue, it’s blue. Only this time, the sky will stay blue.