Snake-Oil Salesman of Shangli

Written by Feb 9, 2010 18:08
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Snake-Oil Salesman of Shangli

A man sells snake oil in the outdoor market of Shangli in Sichuan Province.

“Snake oil salesman” has a negative connotation to most of us. In America, he’s known as a shill, a salesman trying to pull the wool over our eyes with a product that does little to cure what ails us.

He usually skips town before the locals realize he’s a phony.

Little did I know that snake oil is a traditional Chinese medicine made from the Chinese water snake and it is used to treat joint pain and inflammation.

Snake oil is actually sold in traditional Chinese pharmacies. It can also be found at the outdoor market of Shangli, just a mile or so from the Shangli Ancient Town in the Sichuan Province of China.

Walking the dirt-topped streets of Shangli, I came across a young gentleman with a pile of dead snakes on a carpet and a barrel of snake oil nearby. He wore a microphone and spewed the qualities of snake oil, sounding much like a ShamWow salesman at a trade show.

Alex, our guide, translated:

“Rub this on where the pain is and in a week you won’t feel pain,” the snake oil salesman said to a group of people standing around him, waiting for magic to occur.

A man volunteered to give it a try. He turned around and bent over. The snake oil salesman raised the back of his shirt and started to rub the oil on his back.

We never did find out if the pain disappeared in a week.

Alex also told me that some people drink snake blood for their health. I’ll pass, thank you.

Another interesting sight at the outdoor market, which occurs three times out of every 10 days, was the dentist sitting with an assistant awaiting patients.

It was the most unique dentist office I’d ever seen. A card table covered with a white tablecloth, on which some tools of the trade were waiting to be used. I’m not sure what type of procedures he was peddling.

The market itself was intriguing. All the locals from the area descend upon the several blocks-worth of goods to stock up. Women wore baskets on their backs to carry their purchases or their kids, or both.

Roosters were for sale. You could choose from any in a pen of several live birds. They would kill the rooster and de-feather and clean it if you’d like. The pile of guts was, well, a bit revolting. But this is a way of life in Shangli of Sichuan.

This is the way these people live, what they are used to. It’s why I enjoyed this market so much. This wasn’t downtown Chengdu or Beijing. This wasn’t westernized. It wasn’t anything you’d expect.

The sights were amazing: For sale were live catfish swimming in a plastic pool, chicken’s feet, potatoes in the back of a cart and sides of beef hanging on a rack as if they were men’s suits by Ralph Lauren.

A man set up shop on the dirt sidewalk to repair shoes; he had a stack of them. A woman sat in a chair in front of a foot-powered sewing machine mending or making clothes.

Westerner’s rarely get a glimpse of this life out in the country. I’m glad we were among those who got the chance to see it.

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