David Shen, a keen follower of traditiona Chinese medicine and a dealer of herbs, had reasons to be excited. This winter, Shanghai nanpai (south school) e-jiao (donkey-hide gelatin) that had stopped production in 1995 because of high costs, is set to hit the markets again.
"It has been so long since I saw nanpai e-jiao last time," Shen said recently as he examined a piece of the new-look e-jiao with all qualities that confirmed its status as a south-school product — small in size, the same varnished surface and the yellow glimmer as light passed through.
The manufacturer was also the same, the Shanghai Traditional Chinese Medicine Company, except that the product is now made in Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region rather than its original birthplace Shanghai.
E-jiao, which uses donkey hide, is credited for being a top "blood-reinforcing treasures" in TCM since the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) along with ginseng and deer antler. But while ginseng and deer antlers are treasured for their natural resource, e-jiao works out costly because of its long, demanding and delicate production-making process.
Different processing methods since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) led to two big schools of e-jiao production — the north school, based in Shandong Province, and the south school in Shanghai.
Shanghai Traditional Chinese Medicine Pharmaceutical Factory, which was affiliated to Shanghai Traditional Chinese Medicine Company, was a leading producer in the last century and represented the top south school for e-jiao production at that time, according to Ying Yangsheng, former head of the Factory Technology Division.
With strict requirements on materials, time, temperature, humidity and manual operation in every aspect of the production, the processing had to be handled by experienced workers.
A south-school e-jiao was said to boost both energy and blood without causing side-effects, especially excessive pathogenic heat related problems like ulcer, sore throat and constant thirst.
Usually, 100kg of donkey skins could only churn out 30kg of south-school e-jiao, making it a costly affair. But despite that, it was one of the most popular products during winter among the wealthy folks in the Yangtze River Delta besides being a top export item to Japan and Southeast Asia.
The delicate and strict processing affair ensured the success of Shanghai south-school e-jiao, but it was also, to a certain extent, the reason of going out of business 20 years ago.
Though TCM farming prospered in Shanghai during the 1950-60s, the industry gradually moved to the north of the country because of rising labor costs and urbanization, which hurt production of quite a number of local TCM medicine including e-jiao, according Qian Hai, associate professor of Shanghai University of TCM.