Translating Recipes 1: Narrating Qing Bodies

By Carla Nappi

Image from the manuscript of Dergici toktobuha Ge ti ciowan lu bithe, from a manuscript (Mandchou 289) in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.
Image from the manuscript of Dergici toktobuha Ge ti ciowan lu bithe, from a manuscript (Mandchou 289) in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

I study and write about the history of science and medicine in early modern Eurasia, with a focus on China in that context. In particular, I’m interested in how medical and culinary recipes were translated in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, and how the recipe format became a medium of epistemic exchange across early modern Eurasia.

A text that has been particularly exercising me lately is the Xiyang yaoshu 西洋藥書 [Handbook of Western Drugs]. It was written by two French Jesuits, Joachim Bouvet (1656 – 1730) and Jean-François Gerbillon (1654-1707), some time after they had arrived at the court of the Kangxi Emperor in 1688. The book itself was smaller than a modern passport. It begins with a series of thirty-six recipes for treating myriad illnesses, many of which were broken down into varieties on a common theme. After this, the text opens out into almost forty further discussions of drugs and illnesses, many roughly translated from European-language texts about health and the body.

Importantly, the text was written in a language called Manchu, one of the official languages of the Qing court and a crucial medium of translation of scientific and medical knowledge during the Kangxi Emperor’s reign. Many of the recipes used the Manchu script to transliterate the names for drugs in Chinese, French, Latin, and other languages. The text contains many recipes for making remedies for poisons of all kinds.

Reading through this text, I began to think deeply about these recipes as literary objects. What if we understand a recipe not just as a kind of text, but also as a form of storytelling? If a recipe does tell a story, what kind of story might that be? And how might understanding recipes in this way change the way we read and experience them?

Thus began the Qing Bodies project, a long-term multi-media foray into considering various forms of scientific and medical writing in the Qing period from the perspective of a history of storytelling. Qing Bodies asks a very simple, but potentially transformative, question: how might reading Qing medical and scientific texts with an eye to narrative form open up creative possibilities for working and writing with the history of Eurasian science and medicine? This has been tremendous fun, to put it mildly!

One recent experiment stemming from this project (and inspired by the work of Raymond Queneau) has led to me thinking about the relationship between recipes and drama. Can we map a recipe onto–for example–a traditional three-act dramatic form? And how might that change how we experience recipes as literature?

If Act I of the recipe introduces the protagonist (or protagonists), sets out the conflict, and presents the incident that will set the ensuing events in motion, Act II introduces an obstacle for the main character and brings the protagonist to a moment of crisis. Act III resolves the crisis. Here, the recipe becomes a story involving characters (drugs, a body in crisis) that are transformed through their interactions in time.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll share the result of this experiment with you…

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