Cicadas and cicada products are in use for medical purpose in many countries across the Indian ocean. Stories about this animal were gathered and written by students. They are all part of a pedagogical project, funded by the National University of Singapore and the Université de Paris. The Bestiary site is a work-in-progress and a participatory educational tool, representing animals whose products or body parts are used to promote health and healing.
A Story by Lim Joe Ann
The cicada belongs to the insect kingdom and it is very commonly found in most regions in the world. It is a unique creature with many connotations and meanings. In Chinese culture, cicadas symbolize a range of meanings from immortality, rebirth, change to protection against bad luck. Chinese myths, superstitions, and even common proverbs are inherited from this rich symbolic currency. Each meaning associated with the cicada is an opening to understand and learn more about Chinese culture.
The cicada’s form and shape are used in the construction of cicada-shaped jade emblems. In the ancient dynasties of China, these emblems were either ingested as food or given to the dead for the purpose of protecting them against evil influences. It is believed that the cicada is able to protect the host against evil impact due to its large eyes that provide a warning about possible predators. Therefore it was associated as a protection against backstabbers and politicking.
The cicada is also well known in Chinese culture for its association with immortality and rebirth. Firstly, it can live up to 20 years which makes it one of the insects with the longest life spans; secondly, cicadas bury themselves inside soil during winter and emerge during summer; thirdly, the cicada undergoes periodic moulting of its shell, leaving the physical shell behind, just as a person would leave the mortal shell behind at the time of death. For all these reasons it was believed that having a symbol of a cicada nearby would enable a person to live a long life. Besides signifying immortality, the cicada also represents rebirth and resurrection.
Value in Asian medicine
Cicadas may be common insects but their relevance to Chinese society extends beyond symbolism, as they are used to treat ailments as well. Cicadas are used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), where their empty shell, after periodic moulting, is ground into a powder and used in various medicines to alleviate fever, seizures, skin rashes, eye disorders, and in the modern age, SARS. The shell is also prepared into a broth or as tea to be consumed orally. The use of cicadas in TCM is prevalent in ancient and modern times.
The cicada symbolism for immortality may be attributed to its nature of periodical moulting throughout its life cycle. Cicadas shed their outer layer once every seven years, although some species may take longer. The moulting normally takes place during summer, when the exoskeleton is cast-off. It is then gathered to be dried for medicinal use. This outer layer of the cicada can be found discarded on tree trunks, and the dried shell has a distinct yellowish-brown and semi-transparent appearance. The cicada’s shell is made up of proteins, amino acids and organic acids, predominantly chitin. Its properties enable its usage as a versatile ingredient in both ancient and modern Chinese medicines.
In China, the cicada’s shell is used as a common herb to relieve external symptoms and purge ‘heat’ from the body. It is also commonly used in the early stages of ‘warm illnesses’ like cough and fever, as well as in the early stages of measles. During spring and summer, the cicada’s shell is also used to support sinuses and alleviate respiratory symptoms caused by dust, pollen, mold, and changes in weather. The cicada’s shell has anticonvulsant, sedative, and antipyretic properties, particularly useful for the head and legs. The protein in cicada shell is used to make cicada slough, which when consumed in Chinese medicine preparations, contributes a small nutritional component to what is otherwise an entirely inert polysaccharide. The shell is also combined with other forms of medicinal ingredients such as mint or uncaria to strengthen their effects or add new effects.
A famous and ancient formula to relieve fevers and soothe sore throats known as the Chinese recipe “Qing Jie Tang” uses nine grams of decocted cicada, 12 grams of Mint, 18 grams of Gypsum, and 4.5 grams of Licorice Root. This formula relieves fever-induced headaches and muscle aches. In modern times, the ingredient is also used as a treatment for vocal polyps. According to Hou Jinglun’s book Traditional Chinese Treatment for Otolaryngologic Diseases, 4.5 grams of cicada slough in a decoction is used with 107 grams of other ingredients, including hoelen, alisma, coix, scrophularia, sterculia, ginseng, and licorice. Other formulas for curing different skin diseases can be found in modern guides to traditional Chinese medicine practice.