Category Archives: Imperial China

Tales from the Archives: Testing Drugs and Trying Cures Workshop Summary

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

Over the next few weeks, The Recipes Project will feature a selection of case studies from the current issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine on “‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures”. This special issue grew out of a 2014 workshop held at Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. We were very lucky to have two then graduate students Ashley Buchanan and Tillman Taape, join us for and grateful that they took the time to pen the post below. It seems fitting to begin this month on testing drugs and trying cures with a revisit to their post. Elaine (editor).


By Ashley Buchanan and Tillman Taape

What did it mean to test a drug or try a cure in the early modern world? This was the central question for a group of scholars who gathered for a workshop at Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany.  Since recipes emerged as one of the key themes throughout the workshop, and because the conference’s location in Berlin made it difficult for scholars outside of Europe to attend, we thought we might share a brief summary of the “Testing Drugs and Trying Cures” papers, in the hopes that we could bring the workshop’s key ideas and discussions to a larger audience.  What emerged from an exhilarating two days of discussion and debate was the conclusion that historians of science and medicine should not privilege experiment and experimentation as fixed categories, but should understand the multiple ways in which physicians, apothecaries, artisans, institutions, and individuals in the early modern world tested, tried, investigated, experienced, modified, observed, and measured medicinal remedies and materiae medicae.

As written forms of medical and pharmaceutical knowledge and practice, recipes played an important part in the testing of drugs and cures, and our discussion raised larger questions surrounding the nature and purpose of an early modern recipe.

A miniature depicting the Schola Medica Salernitana from a copy of Avicenna’s Canons.  From Wikimedia Commons.

Michael McVaugh’s paper opened the discussion by exploring how medieval physicians went about testing drugs. Learned doctors in the Middle Ages might appear helplessly hidebound, and inclined to follow ancient authorities over experimentation. In contrast, McVaugh showed how a group of Montpellier physicians in the fourteenth century established something of an experimental program. Medieval physicians, however, were not testing to find a cure, but to determine the quality, strength, and effectiveness of a drug as it pertained to a particular person’s complexion. McVaugh underscored an important difference in the purpose of medieval drug testing. Physicians tested not for universal effectiveness, but to determine the quality of a drug – was it hot, cold, moist, or dry.

Title page of the Academy’s Observations sur les eaux minérales (1675). From

Although it became clear in our roundtable discussion that we should be wary of labeling such practices as obvious precursors to the experimental philosophies of the Scientific Revolution, many of the papers showed that the importance of specific tests resonated throughout the early modern period. Evan Ragland’s paper, for example, traced the use of the phrase periculum facere (‘to make a trial’) in physicians’ writings on medicine, anatomy and chemistry. Similarly, Michael Bycroft showed that French physicians and chemical experts of the Académie des Sciences became increasingly interested in the exact composition of mineral waters. Contrived tests such as color indicators or the analysis of residues after evaporation increasingly became the touchstone of proper inquiry.

McVaugh, Ragland, and Bycroft’s papers all underscored the need to understand the specific nature and purpose of testing in each historical context. Continuing to emphasize the importance of historical context, Francesco Paulo de Ceglia’s paper showed just how different the purpose of testing could be in the context of seventeenth century blood miracles in the Kingdom of Naples. Catholics tested the liquefaction of the blood of their patron saint to explore the limits of nature. By discovering nature’s limits, you could then determine what was truly miraculous. Protestants, on the other hand, tested various materials and recipes to recreate the liquefaction of blood to cast doubt on the alleged miracle.

Reliquary containing a glass ampoule of San Gennaro’s blood. From La Repubblica.

In the context of testing, drugs and cures are often under scrutiny in the form of recipes detailing their production and administration. While recipes emerged from many of the papers as very important forms of knowledge, it proved virtually impossible to define exactly what a recipe was. Recipes can be very short or very detailed, ranging from a mere list of ingredients to careful step-by-step instructions. If there is one thing recipes have in common, it is the need for testing, trying, modifying and adapting to different conditions. While constructing an all-encompassing definition of a recipe proved futile, all agreed that it was fruitful to understand recipes as an important genre in early modern science and medicine.


For her investigation on the testing practices of Venetian apothecaries, Valentina Pugliano emphasized the difference between experiment and experience. Venetian apothecaries were less concerned with testing drugs (in a traditional sense) than they were with the experience or truthfulness of their ingredients. Testing by inspection, smell and taste was also important in this pharmaceutical context, to ensure that the ingredients were what the merchant had promised them to be, and not a cheap substitute with inferior properties. For Pugliano’s apothecaries, the important issue that required testing was the authenticity of the ingredients rather than the efficacy of the finished product; after all, most preparations had proved their worth since antiquity. Like McVaugh, Pugliano questioned traditional “Baconian” understandings of what it meant to experiment and test and argued for more nuanced notions of testing and trying, which included observing, measuring, evaluating, and experiencing.

Title page of Johannes Christophorus Homann’s Dissertatio inauguralis medica de medicinae cum geosophia nexu quam auspice deo prpitio (Hala Madgeburica, Hendelius, 1725). From

With early modern Europeans’ increasing forays into the New World, however, more and more materiae medicae were found which were absent from ancient medical writings. Pliny and Dioscorides were silent on such substances as guaiacum wood, Peruvian bark or New World balsam, so their medicinal properties had to be newly investigated. Antonio Barrera-Osorio and Samir Boumediene’s papers added America, or the New World, into the discussion. Both emphasized the role of new drugs and materia medica in the rise of European experimental practices. New drugs and new medicinal recipes required new ways of testing.

Antonio Barrera-Osorio’s paper argued for an empirical culture in the Spanish empire, which was well suited to respond to these challenges. He showed how his protagonists gathered information about New World remedies from natives or travellers and experimented with ways of preparing them. Some of these drugs and recipes were deemed so important for the economy and health of the empire that the Spanish crown ordered tests in hospitals all over Castile. Samir Boumediene’s paper elaborated on the issue of making workable recipes for newly discovered drugs. Once more, taste and smell were important assays, but drugs such as guaiacum and Peruvian bark were also tested on a larger scale. Dispensing them to the poor inmates of charitable hospitals (as happened in France and Germany) helped to determine their effect, and to establish recipes, which indicated how to adjust the treatment in individual cases.

Andreas Cleyer, Specimen Medicinae Sinicae (Frankfurt, 1682). From

Gianna Pomata and Marta Hanson’s paper showed how recipes also functioned as vehicles of knowledge between different cultures. Recipes, as either formula or prescription, were both found in European and Chinese medical cultures. According to Pomata and Hanson, it was the familiar genre of the recipe that facilitated the transmission of Chinese pharmacology to Europe in the second half of the seventeenth century. Similarly, Carla Nappi argued that the Manchu medicinal recipes of the Qing court were spaces of encounter and medical translation in the early modern world. Pomata, Hanson, and Nappi demonstrated how the recipe served as the common ground between European and Chinese medicine and made the translation of Chinese pulse medicine and the transmission of Chinese materia medica possible in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Although recipes are difficult to characterize as a genre, it is clear that they are fascinating objects of historical study. More often than not, they are fluid rather than fixed forms of knowledge, requiring adaptation at every turn. They bring together ingredients, practices and often practitioners from all over the world, and themselves have a tendency to aggregate into larger collections. As written manifestations of gestures and processes, they play an important part in testing, assessing and modifying drugs and cures.

New Digital Tools for the History of Medicine and Religion in China

Originally posted on China Policy Institute: Analysis


By Michael Stanley-Baker

When we do textual research on China, we rely on canons that were made with paper. The gold standard for a digital corpus is that it is paired with images of a citeable physical text produced in known historical conditions: at a specific time and place, by a known author or community, or as close to that as possible. Even more, the basic organisation of our wonderful modern databases is structured according to the catalogue and chapter headings of the original collections, which are essentially finding tools for paper archives. While these categories organised the literature and made it easier to find, they also profoundly influence how we, in turn, organise our own research, and how we write history.

The problem is that the categories of researchers change with time. As we analyse our sources in new ways, we give priority to certain texts or features over others, effectively re-indexing them to suit our purposes. Usually, textual scholars will privilege a few texts as case-studies for close study, because we lack the tools for large-scale analysis of textual corpuses to make summative statements about a field of knowledge, or to track changing patterns of a field over time. We can perform thorough and extensive searches for single or a few terms across wide sets of literature, but the long lists of results that are returned are unreadable by humans.

Figure 1: Search result for a single term, gancao 甘草 (liquorice) in a major text collection
Figure 1: Search result for a single term, gancao 甘草 (liquorice) in a major text collection

We have a problem of too much information, and too few ways of making sense of it.

In my digital work in the combined histories of Chinese medicine and of Chinese religions, I wish to make a critical intersection into how we theoretically interpret, and digitally analyse our sources. The history of Chinese religions has recently taken on some new directions in the theory of practice. In order to better understand the ways in which historical actors creatively combine aspects of “different” religions, such as Buddhism and Daoism, some scholars have started modelling religions as “repertoires of practice.”  This has a very productive overlap with actor-network theory in Science and Technology Studies (STS), which also sees knowledge as produced by “clots” or “assemblages” of people and things, practices, thoughts and institutions and many more.  Furthermore, the concept of “situated knowing” that came out of STS argues that different actors organise knowledge differently; there is no single, authoritative perspective on a particular field of knowledge.

This theoretical conjunction raises an important methodological question: How can we identify, sort through and organise a history of “repertoires of practice,” as they are enacted by historical actors of different stripes? Especially when these practices are disparate and escape the cataloguer’s eye?  How can we tell when and which practices are being combined and deployed, in concert or separately, and whether concentrations of practices remain constant across different sectarian affiliations, or whether they change in significant ways?  Can we identify patterns of change or stability?

In the Drugs Across Asia project, Chen Shih-pei and I are developing a pilot platform to test how to do exactly this. With generous support from Department III of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG), in collaboration with the Research Center for Digital Humanities at National Taiwan University (NTU), and with Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts (DILA), we are undertaking a pilot study to analyse all Daoist and Buddhist Canon and most medical sources up through the Six Dynasties (to 589 CE) for the presence of drug terms.

In stage one, I use a statistical tool developed by NTU to analyse the texts to identify where drug knowledge is located among the set of sources. NTU have uploaded all the texts for analysis as separate juan in the form of *.txt files. I have selected a combination of open source texts from various sources, primarily drawing from Kanripo. I then upload a large list of known drug terms (11,000!), which the tool uses to analyse which drugs appear in which juan according to frequency, and produces a list like this one.

Figure 2: Chapters from Buddhist and Daoist Canons, according to Drug Term Frequency
Figure 2: Chapters from Buddhist and Daoist Canons, according to Drug Term Frequency

From this list, I select the juan for further analysis. It is somewhat self-selecting, as I sort according to how many terms appear per juan. After this, I analyse whether or not the found terms are homonyms for other things, such as relics, deities, or other terms. In this method, more hits is a good thing, because a high concentration of terms per juan is an indicator that drugs are an important topic in that text.

Figure 3: Drug terms in Buddhist monastic codes
Figure 3: Drug terms in Buddhist monastic codes

From this data set, I can already begin to compare drug repertoires of different communities. For example, the graph above shows clusters of drug terms from five different Buddhist monastic codes. The terms that appear between the clusters are shared between two or more texts. When compared to an early Chinese materia medica, as in the graph below, it is visibly clear how different the drug lore from China and from India was.  There are only a very few common terms between the Chinese text and the five Indian texts. These terms need to be more thoroughly analysed to explain these differences and correlations, but the foundations of a research paper are already here.

Figure 4: Buddhist Codes compared to Chinese Materia Medica
Figure 4: Buddhist Codes compared to Chinese Materia Medica

In the second stage, we mark up individual juan. It is exciting how easy MARKUS [1] makes it to do this work. Using Keyword Search, I can paste my entire list of drug terms into MARKUS, and with one click identify which of those 11,000 terms appears in the text and where. This lets me quickly and easily see where the “action” is, where the drug knowledge is concentrated, without having to read through the entire juan first.  I can then go and review how drug knowledge is framed and organised in that text in particular.

This way of organising reveals the “ontology” of the drug knowledge in the juan. Does it mention other important data like disease terms, drug properties, anatomical terms, or material practices like decocting, chopping, or roasting? Geographic terms? Famous people or locations? These are all important for how drug knowledge is figured. I scan through the text to pick out a representative section, and use Manual markup to highlight these salient features. Having been captured by MARKUS, they can be produced as a data table. Through this process of reading and marking up terms, MARKUS enables the ontology of each text to emerge as a data structure directly from the organisation of the text itself.

Figure 5: Ontology marked up in MARKUS
Figure 5: Ontology marked up in MARKUS

I then work closely with DILA to mark up the texts. DILA are responsible for producing CBETA, one of the foremost digital humanities projects in East Asia, and thus have extensive experience with marking Buddhist texts. I forward them the file, and they clean up the automatic marking, and use the sample ontology I’ve provided to continue to manually identify corresponding features throughout the rest of the text.  I check over the results, and forward the marked file to NTU to upload into the analysis platform.

NTU are currently developing a platform called DocuSky, based on the engine behind the Taiwan History Digital Library. This platform will enable detailed analysis of the resulting markups.  It will incorporate detailed meta-data for each text – telling when and by whom a text was compiled or written, in what literary genre, with what sectarian identity, and if available, in which geographic location. By analysing this detailed meta-data along with the markups, I will be able to analyse through which communities what drug knowledge travelled, and, given enough meta-data, at which times and places. The platform will also be capable of visualising the data on a GIS map and dynamic timeline, as in the existing MPIWG platform, PLATIN.


With this tool, I should be able to quickly identify identical and similar drug recipes at scale, as well as when, where and with whom they travelled, and how they were interpreted. This will provide a much broader and more complex picture of who knew what about which drugs than can currently be known from studying materia medica (bencao 本草) literature. I should be able to track changes in properties of drugs and recipes as they circulated through historical communities, and to do so at scale. It is a mainstay of medical history to compare different community interpretations of a single drug or recipe, but no one has compared large-scale patterns of change and transfer before. By identifying which communities possessed and transmitted which drug knowledge, this platform will facilitate a large-scale picture of one important feature of the relationship between medicine and religion in the Six Dynasties.

While this model is custom-tailored to do research on drugs, it is highly adaptable. In the future, researchers should be able to change their categories and term sets to search for any “repertoire” or “assemblage” of terms. This could include medical data such as anatomical locations or disease names.  But it could also be used to capture divinatory arts, health cultivation exercises, pantheons of gods, philosophical terms – anything you can develop a good term list for. I hope this set of tools will enable the fields of religious studies and medical history to come to much more nuanced descriptions of the histories of material (and immaterial) practice.

Michael Stanley-Baker is a post-doctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Department III. He researches medicine and religion in medieval China. Image credit: Michael Stanley-Baker.

[1] Ho, Hou Ieong Brent, and Hilde De Weerdt. MARKUS. Text Analysis and Reading Platform. 2014- Funded by the European Research Council and the Digging into Data Challenge.

Transmission of drug knowledge in medieval China: A case of Gelsemium

By Yan Liu

Figure 1. Illustration of gouwen (Gelsemium) in an early sixteenth-century materia medica text (Bencao pinhui jingyao, 1505). Image from Zhonghua dadian, ed. Zheng Jinsheng, 2008.
Figure 1. Illustration of gouwen (Gelsemium) in an early sixteenth-century materia medica text (Bencao pinhui jingyao, 1505). Image from Zhonghua dadian, ed. Zheng Jinsheng, 2008.

One striking feature of classical Chinese pharmacology is the abundant use of toxic substances. Prominent examples are aconite, arsenic, and bezoar. Fully aware of the toxicity, or du, of these materials, Chinese doctors developed a variety of methods to prepare and deploy them for therapy. How was such knowledge produced in traditional China? And how did it migrate from one space to another? Here I use several medical documents from the seventh century to explore these questions, focusing on gouwen 鈎吻 (Gelsemium), a toxic herb growing in southern China (Fig. 1).

The seventh century is a crucial moment in the history of Chinese medicine. The favorable political environment of early Tang dynasty (618-755) fostered the flourishing of medical ideas and the formation of a number of influential texts. One of them is the Newly Revised Materia Medica (Xinxiu bencao 新修本草, 659), the first state-sponsored pharmacopeia produced in China. Compiled by more than twenty court scholars, the text reflects the government’s effort to standardize medical knowledge. Gelsemium is one of the 850 drugs in the book (Fig. 2). Defined as warming, pungent, and highly toxic, the root of the herb could cure, among others, wounds inflicted by metal weapons ulcers, swelling, and convulsion. The authors also stressed the great danger of the herb by showing that drips squeezed from one or two leaves would suffice to kill a person. But not a goat. Quite the contrary, its sprouts could make the animal grow large. It must be, the authors mused, the case that everything in the world submits to something else.

Figure 2. The entry of gouwen (Gelsemium) in the Newly Revised Materia Medica (659). This copy of the text is from Dunhuang (P. 3714), dated to 667. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France (Gallica).
Figure 2. The entry of gouwen (Gelsemium) in the Newly Revised Materia Medica (659).
This copy of the text is from Dunhuang (P. 3714), dated to 667. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France (Gallica).

Gelsemium was also embraced by contemporary doctors. Sun Simiao 孫思邈 (?-682), one of the most famous doctors in Chinese history, incorporated the drug into his Essential Recipes of A Thousand Gold Worth (Qianjin yaofang 千金要方, mid-seventh century). The toxic herb appears in nineteen prescriptions in the text, primarily for topical treatment. In one case, Sun presented a recipe called “Ointment of Gelsemium” to treat toxic swelling, pain and numbness in the limbs, ulcers, weak feet, among other conditions. At the end, Sun warned: “This recipe should not be given to vulgar people. Be cautious.”

Why did Sun keep the recipe away from vulgar people, a term referring to commoners? Two possible reasons. First, handling Gelsemium was a delicate matter. Due to its high toxicity, any misuse of the herb could result in devastating, if not lethal, consequences. Commoners may not possess the proper knowledge of deploying the herb, hence they should refrain from taking this recipe. Second, because Gelsemium straddled medicine and poison, laymen might easily use it to harm others. By restricting its access, Sun tried to prevent such malicious misuse. Contemporary sources echoed Sun’s concern. According to an eighth-century statute of medical practice, private families were forbidden to possess Gelsemium. The government tightly controlled the access of the toxic herb to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.

Figure 3. Gelsemium root preserved in the house of Shosoin in the Todaiji  Temple in Nara, dated to the eighth century. The roots are 0.5-2.0 cm in diameter and 17-24 cm in length. Image courtesy of the Imperial Household Agency website.
Figure 3. Gelsemium root preserved in the house of Shosoin in the Todaiji
Temple in Nara, dated to the eighth century. The roots are 0.5-2.0 cm in diameter and 17-24 cm in length. Image courtesy of the Imperial Household Agency website.

This begs the question whether the plant was actually used as a medicine. At the high level of the society, this is likely the case. The evidence came from a precious collection of medicines preserved in the Todaiji Temple in Nara , donated by the Empress Dowager Komyo in 756 as a gesture of benevolence. Because of the vibrant cultural interaction between China and Japan at the time, many drugs of Chinese origin travelled eastward. Gelsemium was one of them (Fig. 3). It is possible that the herb reached Japan as an item of exchange between the two imperial courts that appreciated its medicinal value.

Figure 4. Drug substitution in a seventh-century manuscript from Dunhuang (P. 3731). The recipe of the “Ointment of Illicium” is highlighted by the blue box. The arrow points to the note, written in small characters, that specifies the substitution of Phytolacca for Gelsemium. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France (Gallica).
Figure 4. Drug substitution in a seventh-century manuscript from Dunhuang (P. 3731). The recipe of the “Ointment of Illicium” is highlighted by the blue box. The arrow points to the note, written in small characters, that specifies the substitution of Phytolacca for Gelsemium. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France (Gallica).

In the local community, the situation is different. We get a clue from a seventh-century manuscript from Dunhuang, a town located in the far west of the Tang Empire on the Silk Road. The manuscript contains miscellaneous recipes, many for external application. One, called “Ointment of Illicium,” merits our attention (Fig. 4). It closely resembles Sun Simiao’s recipe that I showed above, but with an important variation: it doesn’t use Gelsemium. Underneath the ingredient Phytolacca (danglu 當陸), we find an explanation: “The original recipe uses Gelsemium. Nowadays it cannot be obtained, so one uses Phytolacca to replace it.” We can posit why this happened, given Gelsemium’s habitat in southern China, that is, far away from Dunhuang and its restricted access to commoners, as explained earlier. By contrast, Phytolacca was a local herb whose medical function substantially overlapped with that of Gelsemium, making it a reasonable substitute for the distant, unattainable plant.

This example of drug substitution is telling. Compared to social elites, lay people in local communities faced the challenge of limited medical resources. Consequently, they sought alternative options. The rise of authoritative texts at the imperial center thus went hand in hand with its fluid transformation as it moved in various geographical and social domains. Medical knowledge, upon transmission, was destabilized, begetting varied practices in society.

Human Milk as Medicine in Imperial China: Practice or Fantasy?

By He Bian

What does milk have in common with blood? According to Kou Zongshi (fl. 1110-1117), author of Bencao yanyi (Extended Interpretations on Materia Medica), they are basically the same vital fluid produced by the female body at two critical moments in a woman’s life. While the first menstrual period signifies the maturation of reproductive power, motherhood is the consummation of that power–miraculously causing the vital fluid to flow upward as milk. After nursing ends, the flow of milk again reverses back to blood, as evident from the return of the menses.

“Human milk.” Anon. Buyi Leigong paozhi bianlan (n.p, 1591), Book 8.
“Human milk.” Anon. Buyi Leigong paozhi bianlan (n.p, 1591), Book 8.

For centuries, Kou’s comment was repeatedly quoted as the dominant theory over lactation in the realm of learned medicine. It also coincides with parallel attempts to speculate on the metaphysical foundation of sex differences in women, and the consolidation of women’s medicine (fuke) and pediatrics (erke) as medical specialties.[1]

However, Kou’s original aim was to make sense of medical recipes. In particular, he was trying to figure out why do so many recipes for eye medicine use human milk to mix up powdered mineral drugs: a practice that has parallels in different cultural contexts. Since blood is essential for the five senses to function and human milk is essentially blood, Kou reasoned, this makes it an excellent medicine for eye diseases. Another recipe that may have been on his mind is the recommendation to drink “three portions of human milk” to help with obstructed menses. It makes sense if they were considered of the same origin. Like cures like.

Let’s pause here to consider what this means. Working with Chinese materia medica texts often means untangling different strands of thought, modes of compilation and miscellaneous quotations. The entry on each substance (e.g. human milk, renru or ruzhi) often begins with a learned survey of previous literature, including passages from classical literature and histories, and ends with a large (and often unwieldy) body of recipes. The problem is that the prescribed uses of the substances in the first part do not always sit well with the recipes, which are messy, opaque, and often outright strange.

In fact, Kou Zongshi’s work could be understood as a scholar-physician’s attempt to impose order and coherence on the unruly recipes, which were becoming increasingly available in print. [2] The incongruities and tension between theory and recipes, however, allows us to follow the intricate dance between empiricism and rationalism in such texts: when did authors equate recipes with real-life experiences, and when did they treat them as exemplars of theory and formulaic principles? When did book culture begin to shape the ways in which medicines were prepared, consumed, and invented?

Back to Kou Zongshi’s ingenious, if somewhat contrived, speculation over the nature of lactation. It did not seem to have caught much attention immediately. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed a growing suspicion among medical experts to discipline and curb wet nurses’ sway over childcare, and pediatric treatises abound with warnings against drunken, naughty wet nurses whose milk turns unwholesome to the infant.[3] Again, the female body’s power to nourish but also intoxicate with her transformed milk resonates with similar discourses discussed elsewhere on this blog; notably, alcoholic drinks were seen to be a bad thing that excites her passions, in contrast to ancient Roman recommendations.

In addition, the conquest of Mongols brought about increased consumption of cow and goat’s milk.[4] A leading physician active in the fourteenth century advised consuming those over human milk, which is easily “tainted with poisonous passions.” It looks like the arrival of more abundant dairy products would transform the existing pharmacopeia once and for all.

But not so simple. By the sixteenth century in China, human milk had become a “super food” of sorts, especially among elite families. Kou Zongshi’s dusty theory became a dominant trope, fanning the imagination of the female body as a machine of alchemical wonders, and her milk a sort of elixir that revitalizes the frail and depleted bodies. In the sixteenth-century encyclopedia Systematic Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu), Li Shizhen, the erudite naturalist and capable physician, criticized the excessive fetishizing of human milk. The prudent Li nevertheless included twelve “new recipes” that involve human milk as medicine. Li’s encyclopedia was first printed in 1596; soon after the turn of the century, dietary manuals began to teach people how to prepare dried milk powder at home, after collecting fresh milk from “strong women who just gave birth to boys”. Presumably, women sold their milk not as wet nurses, but directly to pharmacists (as depicted in the picture above).

So did people in imperial China consume human milk as medicine? Quite likely. But was it ubiquitous? Probably not. Recipes can be practical and fantastic, and theorists can explain and inspire. What matters is that human milk as medicine gradually came to be taken out of the context of nursing and acquired a more abstract quality as commodity.

[1] Charlotte Furth, A Flourishing Yin: Gender in China’s Medical History: 960–1665 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999).

[2] Asaf Goldschmidt, The Evolution of Chinese Medicine: Song Dynasty, 960-1200 (London ; New York: Routledge, 2009).

[3] Ping-Chen Hsiung, “To Nurse the Young: Breastfeeding and Infant Feeding in Late Imperial China,” Journal of Family History, 20, 3 (1995), pp. 217-38.

[4] Paul D. Buell, E.N. Anderson, and Charles Perry, A Soup for the Qan : Chinese Dietary Medicine of the Mongol Era as Seen in Hu Sihui’s Yinshan Zhengyao, 2nd Rev. and Expanded ed. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010).