Seiseinyū and secrets: problems of recipe attribution in early modern Japan

In my last post, I looked at the problems faced by early modern Japanese doctors trying to figure out how to manufacture a new mercurial drug called seiseinyū, which had first appeared in the Chinese doctor Chen Sicheng’s Secret Record of Syphilis (1636). Yet although Japanese doctors eventually found ways to produce seiseinyū, the complicated movement of books and ideas between China, Europe and Japan during this period meant that even doctors who knew how to make the drug could be confused about where their recipes had come from.

The syphilis doctor Tokujitsu Junchoku, hero of Funakoshi Kinkai's "Illustrated Syphilis War Tales" (Ehon baisō gundan, 1838). Courtesy of Waseda University Library.

One of the most detailed manuscript recipes for seiseinyū was written down in the late eighteenth century by a doctor called Haruhi Gen’an. Gen’an claimed this recipe had been passed down in his family since the time of his ancestor Haruhi Genryō, who in turn had received it from a Dutch doctor called “Seirukettan” in Nagasaki in 1711. Gen’an believed that the Dutch themselves were reluctant to share this secret recipe, and he took great pride in his lineage’s knowledge of it; imagine his surprise, then, when he discovered that Chen Sicheng’s Secret Record of Syphilis, which had recently been reprinted in Japan, contained a recipe identical to the one his family had for generations been treating as secret.

After some thought, Gen’an came up with an explanation for what had happened: just as his ancestor had learned the recipe from the Dutch doctor Seirukettan, the Chinese had also learned about the recipe from European visitors in the early seventeenth century, and Chen Sicheng had tried to pass the recipe off as his own. Indeed, it is curious to note that Chinese and European doctors started using mercurial drugs to treat syphilis quite soon after the disease’s arrival, and difficult to rule out the possibility that maritime contacts might have allowed one medical culture to learn the idea from the other. However, European and East Asian mercurial therapies for syphilis differed in their details, and it seems safer to conclude that they developed independently.

An army of antisyphilitic drugs defeats the syphilis demons. Funakoshi Kinkai, Illustrated Syphilis War Tales (1838). Courtesy of Waseda University Library.

But why did the Haruhi lineage attribute their seiseinyū recipe to the mysterious Dutch doctor “Seirukettan”? It isn’t possible to offer a definitive answer to this question, but a little background knowledge concerning the circulation and uses of medical texts in eighteenth-century East Asia is enough to suggest a plausible hypothesis.

Patients seeking treatment for syphilis tended to seek out specialists in “wound medicine” (yōka), a field that included the application of topical cures as well as surgical techniques. Eighteenth-century Japanese doctors were highly receptive to learning about European surgery and anatomy, which were much more developed than their East Asian counterparts at that time; it would thus be unsurprising for a Japanese practitioner of wound medicine to think of a cure for syphilis as more likely to be European than Chinese.

Nevertheless, Japanese practitioners of wound medicine would also have known about the Chinese surgical tradition and probably would have kept some classic Chinese treatises on surgery in their library. One such treatise was the Complete Book of Proven Remedies for Wounds and Ulcers (Chuangyang jingyan quanshu 瘡瘍經驗全書): the first edition of this book was produced in 1569, and an expanded edition published in 1717 included an additional chapter entitled “The Secret Record of Syphilis” – this was none other than Chen Sicheng’s book, incorporated into the new edition without attribution.

Early modern Japanese doctors often made their own manuscript copies of such medical treatises, especially if the only available printed versions were expensive editions imported through Nagasaki. Sections of multiple books could be copied into a single manuscript volume or a single book could be copied into several separate volumes; as a result, authorial attributions and the status of chapters as sections of larger works could easily become unclear. If something like this had happened to the Haruhi family’s copy of the Complete Book of Proven Remedies for Wounds and Ulcers, the original source of their recipe for seiseinyū could easily become forgotten, giving rise to a family legend that the recipe derived from a Dutch doctor in Nagasaki.

Syphilis and seiseinyū: manufacturing a mercurial drug in early modern Japan


The Syphilis King consults with his minions prior to launching an invasion of the human body. Funakoshi Kinkai, "Illustrated Syphilis War Tales" (Ehon baisō gundan, 1838). Image courtesy of Waseda University Library.

Syphilis arrived in Japan in the early sixteenth century and spread rapidly through the country. The symptoms of the disease were severe but there was no truly effective treatment, and many patients thus turned in desperation to toxic substances such as corrosive sublimate (HgCl2, known in Japanese as keifun) in the hope that violent drugs might be able to expel the disease from their bodies.

A method for producing corrosive sublimate had been discovered by Chinese alchemists at least as early as the sixth century AD. The procedure involved mixing mercury, alum, and common salt into a paste and applying them to the base of a pottery vessel that was then sealed and heated over a fire while the lid was cooled with water. When the vessel was opened, the corrosive sublimate had condensed as small white crystals on the inner surface of the lid. The Japanese soon learned of and adopted this process, so by the time syphilis arrived in their country they had been manufacturing corrosive sublimate for nearly a thousand years.

Patients who consumed corrosive sublimate as a drug for syphilis would salivate and eventually suffer from suppuration of the mouth cavity. Doctors interpreted these effects as positive signs of the drug’s toxic efficacy, but the disease had an unfortunate tendency to return even after patients thought they had been cured, and there was a widespread desire for an improved formulation that might be able to cure the disease more permanently.

One such formulation was seiseinyū, a drug originally invented by the early seventeenth-century Chinese doctor Chen Sicheng. Chen had developed a large number of remedies making use of seiseinyū and published them in his book The Secret Record of Syphilis (Meichuang milu, 1636). This book was largely forgotten in China after his death, but a copy was brought to Japan and reprinted there, and it quickly became a standard reference for Japanese doctors who wished to treat syphilis using the latest Chinese methods.

Chen’s recipe for seiseinyū was similar to the standard recipe for corrosive sublimate, but it included a number of additional ingredients, the most prominent of which was an arsenical mineral called yoseki. Arsenical minerals were known to be highly toxic, but yoseki may have been included in the recipe for precisely this reason – either because doctors hoped that its toxicity would help expel the disease, or because they thought it might somehow balance the toxicity of the mercury in the recipe to yield a drug whose side effects were less severe than those of regular corrosive sublimate.


Illustration of a vessel for manufacturing corrosive sublimate and seiseinyū. Ishibashi Masaaki, "Essential Formulas for Syphilis" (Baidoku yōhō, 1810). Image courtesy of Waseda University Library.

Japanese doctors who wanted to make use of Chen Sicheng's remedies needed to produce their own seiseinyū, but Chen’s description of his recipe was couched in unusual vocabulary that they often found difficult to interpret. Even a relatively common word like yoseki could lead to misunderstanding. In China, this word normally referred to arsenopyrite (FeAsS) or the related mineral loellingite (FeAs2); in Japan, however, this word was often understood to refer to arsenolite (As2O3), which was a common mineral obtained as a by-product from silver mines and sold commercially as “Iwami rat poison.” Many other variants of this mineral were available, ranging from a high-quality “peach-blossom” variety through yellow and white varieties to a low-quality grey variety; the choice among these varieties was thought to significantly effect the quality of the seiseinyū produced.

In contrast to the basic recipe, which was widely available in published form, these more subtle forms of manufacturing knowledge were usually passed down in secret by family lineages of doctors. It was not until the final decades of the eighteenth century that some doctors began to publish more straightforward popular accounts. In my next post, I will consider one of the more unusual consequences of this tradition of secrecy: that at least one lineage of doctors thought their family recipe for seiseinyū derived not from China, but from Europe.

Chinese and Japanese Names and Terms
J. keifun = C. qingfen 輕粉
J. seiseinyū = C. shengshengru 生生乳
J. yoseki = C. yushi 礜石
Chen Sicheng 陳司成
Meichuang milu 黴瘡秘錄
Funakoshi Kinkai 船越錦海
Ehon baisō gundan 絵本黴瘡軍談
Ishibashi Masaaki 石橋正炳
Baidoku yōhō 黴毒要方

Translating Recipes 8: Recipes in Time and Space, Part 2 - WITH

[This is the second post in a multi-part mini-series on Recipes in Time and Space. For previous installments in this mini-series, see here.]

One of the most important aspects of a recipe is the work that it does to bring elements together. This can happen in many different ways. A recipe combines ingredients and objects, it combines bodies (human with nonhuman, living with inert, sick with healthy), and it combines directions and rules of practice, among many other kinds of combination that a recipe enacts.

Manchu medical recipes, specifically, combine much more than that. As we’ve seen, these texts function as translations that bring together object, terms, and bodily conceptions from several textual and medical cultures that don’t otherwise have the chance to meet and inform one another. Each Manchu medical recipe in our Si yang-ni okto-i bithe (Ch. Xiyang yaoshu 西洋藥書) [Handbook of Western Drugs] also functions in conversation with other recipes included in the text, and these recipes often reference one another in a wonderful inter-textual tapestry. In many ways, “with” – effecting combination, juxtaposition, conversation – is one of the key attitudes animating a Manchu medical recipe.

Future posts in this mini-series will consider the same recipe by zooming in on other attitudes (on, inside, etc.) to explore the ways that temporal and spatial orientations shape the kind of work that the recipe does to create relationships in the embodied world. We will conclude with a post that zooms back out to consider how these re-orientations can collectively help us read and experience medical recipes in general (and Manchu recipes in particular) in a new way, and ultimately generate new kinds of story-translations from them.

With that in mind, let’s return to the recipe that we’ve been variously translating over the course of this series and re-encounter and re-translate it in the spirit of celebrating the way that the recipe situates bodies in time and space in a “with” kind of a way. (You can find alternate translations of the same recipe from previous installments of Translating Recipes here and here.) This is appropriate to the nature of the recipe, which is (as you’ll recall) a remedy for poison. A poisoning, after all, is a relationship, and thus an event of with-ness: it is a meeting of substances and bodies whose coming-together creates an emergency. We might consider this a circumstance of being "with poison," analogous to (and perhaps the inverse of) the way we describe pregnancy as being "with child": in both cases, one body occupies another and transforms it. Both result from a with-ing of a body. Translation, like poisoning, accomplishes a roughly equivalent kind of work: the translators of a text, by joining with it, create an emergency that transform it into something new.

In the Englishing of the Manchu recipe provided below, I’ve emphasized some of the different sorts of combination, juxtaposition, and with-ness that animate the recipe in an effort to show how important this kind of relationship is to the work that the recipe does. There are also implied moments of with-ness that I haven’t called attention to, but that this re-orientation will hopefully help us be more sensitive to even when it’s not explicitly marked.

The Manchu text:

emu hacin. niyalma ehe horon bisire jaka de oktolobuci.  neneme ehe horon be geterembure ufa  okto be [gvsici fangdz de bi..] fangdz songkoi omifi. oksibufi. sirame ere nimenggi be guwejihe teisu bade ulenggu de iju.. aikabade jeke omiha  ehe horon umesi amba ofi. dolo wajime fathaxame gvwaliyaxame bucere de isiname ujen oci. ere  nimenggi okto be tofohon sabdan ci wesihun orin sabdan ci fusihvn gaifi. eici yali bujuha tarhv sile de. eici sun nimenggi suwaliyaha sun de suwaliyafi omi.. guwejihe teisu bade ulenggu de. ere nimenggi be juwe erin ome emgeri dasame ijume. jai inenggi geli juwe mudan iju.. aikabade ehe horon kemuni majige getereke akv oci. ere nimenggi okto be geli emu udu sabdan gaifi fangdz songkoi omifi fangdz songkoi ijuci sain..


The translation, in the spirit of “With”:

Here is a medicinal oil that will help a body part ways WITH the poison inside it. This should be used if a person is WITH poison. Before being WITHOUT the poison, after taking a flour-based drug that will interact WITH the one being prescribed here [and one which is found in the thirtieth prescription that is collected WITH this one in this text] in accordance WITH the prescription, and after that drug causes the poison to be vomited up and thus no longer WITH the body, spread this oil on the navel part of the stomach so that it interacts WITH the skin. If the poisoned person has consumed a lot of the poison such that it’s wreaking havoc WITH the body and the condition has become very serious WITH respect to what it had been earlier, combine 15-20 drops of the oil WITH either the fatty broth produced WITH boiled meat or butter combined WITH milk, and then drink the oil WITH the liquid. Having smeared this oil on the navel part of the stomach (blending oil WITH skin again) after waiting for one erin period WITH an additional erin period, the following day spread the oil two more times. If this has still not succeeded in removing all of the poison, take one or more drops of this medicinal oil and smear it on (blending oil WITH skin again) in accordance WITH the prescription. Good health will then be WITH you.

Translating Recipes 7: Recipes in Time and Space, Part 1

…There is not a conjunction or a preposition, and hardly an adverbial phrase, syntactic form, or inflection of voice, in human speech, that does not express some shading or other of relation which we at some moment actually feel to exist between the larger objects of our thought…We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue, a feeling of cold. - William James, Principles of Psychology
Welcome to a new year, dear readers, and a new installment of Translating Recipes! For this week’s experiment in translation and storytelling, we’re going to begin to consider the importance of time and space in reading and translating medicinal recipes.
As readers, our experience of a story can be profoundly shaped by those textual elements that are among the easiest to overlook. Terms like “to,” “from,” “with,” “above,” “on,” and others are some of the most important linguistic technologies that we use. They orient and move bodies in time and space. They create intimacies among objects, bringing them together and tearing them apart. They create communities by situating objects relative to one another: inside/outside, above/below, possessing/possessed by, before/after. Different prepositions accomplish this in different ways. And creates proximity. If raises conditions and counterfactuals. But suggests alternatives, removes things, or places them outside. By positions things in particular spaces and times, creates motion, and specifies conditions of means and method. Taken together, prepositions make simple juxtaposition take a narrative shape, they produce directionality in time and space, and they create movement. Prepositions thus allow mere co-presence to become a story.
This Translating Recipes series has repeatedly suggested that we need to take the recipe form (or more properly speaking, the plurality and multitude of different recipe forms) seriously as a genre and mode of storytelling. In the interest of doing that, we'll now look at the work done by prepositions in producing a recipe’s narrative. As we are focusing on Manchu recipes here, and the Manchu language doesn’t include prepositions - instead favoring postpositions or verbal suffixes - we need to turn from prepositions to the many other kinds of language-technology that did the equivalent work. As I approach the kinds of relational technologies that do work equivalent to English prepositions in Manchu, then, I’ll be talking about the kinds of terms that may more properly follow or be attached to words rather than preceding them: postpositions and tense markers.
In that spirit, the next posts will unfold in a mini-series of reflections that each take on a prepositional attitude in the context of the Manchu recipe that we’ve been variously translating and retranslating: on, while, from, etc. In each instalment of this mini-series, we’ll explore the significance of parts of recipes that we tend to take for granted by creatively translating with them in mind. Check back tomorrow for the first experiment!