Storytelling and Practical Skills in Medical Recipes

By Ying Zhang

What constituted a medical recipe in late imperial China? Literati physicians often touted the efficacy of a medical formula by contending that it conforms to traditional order of the emperor and his officials. They might also praise the suitability of the drug combination for treating that individual body’s ills. (See discussion on drug knowledge in China elsewhere on this blog). While texts by literati physicians have attracted most scholarly attention, they might not contain some of the most widely circulated and used medical recipes in everyday settings. People in late imperial China had access to a wide range of vernacular texts to find a recipe for self-treatment. During this period, we see the circulation of many practice-oriented recipes through vernacular literature as well as personal networks. These sources included daily-use encyclopedias, almanacs, meritorious books, and fiction. These recipes functioned as a practical instruction for domestic use and a textual form that articulated practical health care knowledge through literary narratives. They highlighted the techniques of making medicine as an essential part of a medical recipe that non-expert could follow in their own homes.

The first page of the “Recipe from a bare-foot immortal for pills made with fish maw to help insemination.” Image credit: Berlin State Library.

One fascinating example which I’d like to bring to you today is the “Recipe from a bare-foot immortal for pills made with fish maw to help insemination,” which was collected and recorded in A Convenient Survey of Medical Recipes (Yifang bianlan), a manuscript written by a person with the sobriquet Gaoyangshi in the nineteenth century. This recipe presents a story at its beginning, which starts with the encounter in a certain famous mountain between an immortal and a sixty-one-year old men with the surname Zhou from Yunnan who has one wife and nine concubines but has been unable to conceive a child:

…[Zhou] talked about his family [with the immortal], saying that he does not have any children and asking for a good recipe. Moved by his sincerity, the immortal gave him a recipe. The medicine [made according to the recipe] has a character that is clearing but not cooling, warming but not heating. If men take it, [it] could strengthen the muscles and bones, invigorate the vitality, replenish the marrow, nourish the yin, and reinforce the primordial. If women take it, it could regulate the menstrual period, replenish the Blood, prevent miscarriage, regulate the qi, benefit the yin, and ease fertilization. Zhou bowed and received it [meaning the recipe] (bai er shou zhi), and refined and mixed [the medicine] according to the recipe (yi fang xiuhe)…

Following the story, the recipe lists the individual drugs required and, after each drug, it provides instructions on how to process it. For the chuan fuzi (Aconitum carmichalii Debx, Chinese aconite) from Sichuan, for instance, one needs to select the following:

Two pieces with each weighing four liang and five qian, cut off their sprouts and cut each of them into four pieces, soak them with raw gancao (Glycyrrhiza uralensis, Licorice) water for seven days, change the water every morning, and then cover them with half jin of wet flour, heat until cooked over a slow charcoal fire, cut them into pieces, and then heat to dry.

At the end of its drug list, the recipe summarizes, “to cook and make the listed drugs according to the [described] methods” (yi shang zhu yao ru fa paozhi). The word “paozhi” here refers to processing the drugs according to the methods listed under each drug. The recipe then continues with instructions on how to grind the drugs into powders and mix the powders into pills, and also explains the way to take the medicine.

It is interesting to note that the story at the beginning of the recipe uses the word “yi fang xiuhe,” a more general term referring to all of the work from processing individual drugs to mixing them together into pills. It suggests that the recipe worked well exactly because Mr. Zhou made the pills following all the technical details required by the recipe as a way of self-cultivation and demonstrated his piety in the making process. It was Mr. Zhou, not any physician or pharmacy, made the pills. The narrative episodes not only validated the efficacy by stating the mythical origin of the recipe, but also affirmed the efficacy by stating that this Mr. Zhou then had seven sons after taking the pills and lived to ninety-seven years old. They thereby presented the production of medicine as a personal endeavor that anyone could pursue. While the recipe exhibited a world of practical skills to handle medical substances and required utensils, the story advertised these specialized skills of drug processing as everyday household knowledge. The story also functioned to attract collectors through literary embellishment. This was especially desirable when recipes traveled out of medical contexts and became collectable artifacts in the context of literati sociability, connoisseurship, and moral practice. Recipes garnished with literary creation and moral teaching in this context usually encouraged its collectors to distribute it to more people to accumulate merit. Thus, when we exam the circulation and use of recipes out of medical context, we could find storytelling an essential part of medical recipes intended for household use.

Ying Zhang received her Ph.D. degree from Johns Hopkins University in 2017. Her dissertation titled “Household Healing: Rituals, Recipes, and Morals in Late Imperial China” investigates China’s rich tradition of household healing practices and reinterprets these practices in relation to religion, gender roles, and morality from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century. Drawing on a wide range of texts people used in their daily healing practices and texts about household healing, this research contributes to a deeper understanding of the heterogeneous health-related practices beyond the domain of learned medicine. It demonstrates the various ways in which the home served as a central site of healing technology in late imperial China. Through the study of the circulation of health related texts, it also sheds new light on the circulation of information in the context of literati sociability, philanthropic activities, and religious commitment in late imperial China. She can be reached at

2 thoughts on “Storytelling and Practical Skills in Medical Recipes”

  1. Hi. This is Elaine replying on behalf of Ying. Yes, it is from the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. If you would like more information on the primary sources in this post, please contact Ying directly at

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