Tag Archives: Michael Stanley-Baker

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- http://dh.chinese-empires.eu/beta/ Funded by the European Research Council and the Digging into Data Challenge.

Situating Drug Knowledge in China: A Digital Humanities Solution

By Michael Stanley-Baker

Mandala of Medicine Buddha surrounded by medicinal plants, animals and minerals
Mandala of Medicine Buddha surrounded by medicinal plants, animals and minerals – Blue Beryl Thangka reproduction, author’s collection

Drugs, be they plant, animal or mineral, were important objects for trade, cure and even spiritual salvation throughout Chinese history even until today.  They appear in all sorts of diverse sources, from poems and diaries to scriptures, pharmacopoeias and recipe books. The historical record for the early imperial period (221 BCE – 589 CE) indicates that the majority of health care was provided by religious specialists– Daoists, Buddhists and mediums–and that doctors were in a very small minority.

Knowledge of a particular signature drug could mark a certain group’s identity, forming a means through which they showed their own therapeutic knowledge, while also distinguishing them from other players in the medico-religious marketplace. Knowledge of what drugs did, and access to them, either through physical access in the regions from which came, or through knowledge of how to identify them, could play an important part in religious identity.

Thus, simply having a drug “name” leaves a lot untold.  Unifying projects, like state-sponsored pharmacopoeias, as well as modern botanical dictionaries that make equations between traditional Chinese names and modern botanical identities, do a lot to conceal the diverse processes by which drugs circulated in pre-modern China.  Substitution, modification and the use of alternate names were common practices in this period (and still are today). The geographic origins of a plant or animal product also had an impact on its efficacy, and also on the fact that it could under different names in different regions.

However, the history of Chinese pharmacology has largely been devoted to tracking changes in different pharmacopoeic editions over time–the editorial staff on each project, increases in quantities of drugs, and development of plant knowledge, such as the identification of new species or sub-species of plants.  This approach works within the normative limits of the state-recognized and medically authorised knowledge, but studies outside of this domain are largely limited to anecdotal stories of Daoists revealing isolated recipes, or Buddhists providing healing to the laity. There have been few overall, systematic studies of drug lore in other domains – like the Buddhist or Daoist canons, for example. To what extent does the data in the Daoist canon back up the anecdotal claim that Daoists were the major stake-holders in early drug lore?  Which sects, in which periods and times, were most active in drug lore, and were they actively competing with other sects from the same time and places?

This image plots out the locations described for 36 drugs in the Daoist text, the Zhen'gao 真誥 DZ 1016.
This image plots out the locations described for 36 drugs in the Daoist text, the Zhen’gao 真誥 DZ 1016.

At the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Shi-Pei Chen and I are developing a digital solution to help answer such questions. This will better situate early Chinese drug knowledge within the multiple contexts, times and places in which drugs took on new meanings and interpretations. We will expand the study of Chinese drug lore into what has normally been considered “religious” literature, and perform a variety of analyses on digital transcriptions of early materia medica. A detailed description of this project can be found here.

We are considering the following open access repositories for transcribed, digital editions of the Buddhist  (see the repository here) and Daoist canons. We will do statistical analysis of the texts in the Daoist and Buddhist canons to establish the frequency of drug terms in the texts, to see how much of the pharmacopoeia figured for these actors. Based on general metadata about those texts (as available/reliable), such as date (or date range) and place of composition, author or sectarian affiliation, we can better analyse the circulation of drug lore across time, space and community.  Using GIS place name authority databases (CHGIS, CCTS and DDBC) we will associate historical place names with GIS points.  This will enable us to use time-space displays to show the distribution of drug knowledge across time and space (we are considering PLATIN, see sample applications here).

This image plots out the locations for the same 36 drugs, as they appear in the Bencao jing jizhu 本草經集注. Both texts were edited by the same person, Tao Hongjing 陶弘景, between 492 and 500.
This image plots out the locations for the same 36 drugs, as they appear in the Bencao jing jizhu 本草經集注. Both texts were edited by the same person, Tao Hongjing 陶弘景, between 492 and 500. – Both maps were made with QGIS, and appear in Stanley-Baker, 2013, p. 172.

We will then select interesting or important texts for closer study, and use an automated text-marking system, MARKUS, to markup individual texts in detail. We will focus initially on DRUG NAMES, DRUG FUNCTIONS, LOCATION NAMES, and PEOPLE. This will enable us to compare regional associations about drugs in Daoist and Buddhist texts against those in the pharmacopoeic tradition. For example, whether and how recipes vary across texts, whether the same places are identified as centres for drug supply or transcendent use, which drugs or sets of drugs circulated through which communities.

The pilot study is limited to the Six Dynasties period (220-589), a time which had the most formative influence on religious institutions, and the conclusion of which saw the establishment of the first imperial medical academy.  In later stages of the project, we hope to invite scholars working in other periods, regions, and languages to collaborate with us.  If there is enough interest from the medical history community, perhaps together we could create a research infrastructure to study drugs across the pre-modern world.  If you would like to join this venture in its future stages, please contact us!

References Cited:
Stanley-Baker, Michael. 2013, Daoists and Doctors: The Role of Medicine in Six Dynasties Shangqing Daoism PhD Thesis, London: University College London.


A Plant for the End of the World

Atractylodes chinensis (DC.) 蒼朮, from the Jiuhuang bencao 救荒本草 (Materia Medica for Surviving Famine) 1.101a
Atractylodes chinensis (DC.) 蒼朮, from the Jiuhuang bencao 救荒本草 (Materia Medica for Surviving Famine, pub. 1525) 1.101a

Located in his mountain retreat near the Floriate Sunlight Cavern on Mount Mao, China’s earliest recorded pharmacologist, Tao Hongjing, is deep in his studies. He is editing the earliest known recension of the Chinese Pharmacopoeia, the Divine Husbandman’s Pharmacopoeia (Shennong bencao jing 神農本草經). It is about the year 500, and Tao is also compiling a collection of manuscripts, sacred revelations to a local family, the Xus 許 of Jurong, revealed to them over 130 years earlier. Collectively titled the Declarations of the Perfected (Zhen’gao 真誥), they cover all manner of topics that interested the Xus, from personal salvation, bodily cure, the contours of the underworld, to the political careers of their friends who had died and passed over into the bureaucracies of the afterlife. One manuscript in this collection celebrates a plant native to the Mao mountains, the herb atractylodes, cangzhu 蒼朮.  It describes not only the medical properties of the plant but an entire array of health-related and salvific practices. It is revealed by the Goddess, the Lady of Purple Tenuity, Ziwei Wang furen 紫微王夫人, whose title refers to the canopy of heaven surrounding the pole star. This manuscript, copied in the hand of the younger of the two Xu brothers, Xu Hui 許翽, is titled Discourse on Eating Atractylodes (Fu zhu xu 服朮序).  It begins at the end of time, with the apocalypse that was predicted for the year 392. In succeeding layers, the Lady of Purple Tenuity describes different practices which for dealing with the disease, warfare and famine to come.

Excerpt from reconstructed Mawangdui Daoyin tu, excavated from tomb dated to 168 BCE. Wellcome Images
Excerpt from reconstructed Mawangdui Daoyin tu, excavated from tomb dated to 168 BCE.
Wellcome Images

There are massage and breathing exercises which nourish vitality (yangsheng 養生) to ensure robust health while drawing meditative awareness to the interior of the body.  These circulate qi and activate divine beings in the body.1 Other similar repertoires from this period further included daoyin 導引 stretching like those pictured here, sexual cultivation, and diet.

Visualisation of the dipper stars descending into the adept's body, and returning, bringing the adept with them.
Visualisation of the dipper stars descending into the adept’s body, and returning, bringing the adept with them. 上 清金闕帝君五斗三一圖訣.

The Lady of Purple Tenuity goes on to describe the next phase of practice, in which the adept visualizes starry gods of the dipper and other asterisms as celestial bureaucrats, inviting them to take up residence in the body. These visualizations anthropomorphize the bodily awareness of earlier breathing meditations, and match the body with the movements of the stars, of the seasons, of the five phases.   Then come fantastic alchemicals, beyond material making or financial access, which stretch the imagination and aspiration:

Tiger spittle, phoenix brain, white cornelian, jade frost, lunar liquor of the Grand Bourne, thrice-cycled numinous steel.  If you offer up a knife-point’s worth, your divine feathery wings will spread wide. Opening up the supreme writs of the void-like cavern, you will blaze in glory in the chamber of the primordial beginning…2

Visualisation of Cranial Gods. 上清金書玉字上經
Visualisation of Cranial Gods. 上清金書玉字上經

Finally, Lady Wang lays out the highest levels of practice: oration of the Great Cavern Scripture (Dadong zhenjing 大洞真經), and the other supreme texts of the tradition. These install supreme deities throughout the body, grant immortality and ascension to the highest layers of heaven. They will

cause the 5 organs to flourish and thrive and guard and close the mysterious portal [between the eyes]. Visualize the nine perfected [beings] within the brain and the three qi will transport fluids [through the body] and irrigate the elixir field.3

Only then, Lady Wang begins to discuss plants:

One can add [to one’s lifespan] with the five micas, water cassia, atractylodes root, polygonatum, Lyonia Ovalifolia, sunflower, eastern stone, malachite, oily pine nuts, sesame, poria. These are all tools for cultivating life; using them can lengthen your years. I have completely investigated the successes and failures of trees and herbs. There are those which quickly benefit to oneself, but none equal the many proofs of the power of Atractylodes.4

It is here where she reveals that atractylodes, alone among all others, can dispel ghost-borne diseases at the millennial climax. The plant among plants, it is the key to survival in the end times.

Eat this potent herb to care for your health, swallow the floriate springs of clear rivers; study the secret instructions concerning mysterious wonders, and intone hidden texts of the most high. If you do this nesting high in mountain caves, you’ll be able to talk of your years in the same terms as metal and stone.5

This is not just a recipe for making a drug, it is a recipe for life, for salvation. Three recipes using atractylodes appear elsewhere in the Declarations as separate documents. They each describe technical details of boiling, sieving and pulping the root, frying it with wine or mixing it with honey, jujubes or pine nuts.  Other passages in Tao’s collection show that the Xu family were taking atractylodes for different reasons: Xu Mi 許謐 the father, was taking it for his semi-paralysed arm. the youngest of his three sons, Xu Hui 許翽 was taking it to prepare his digestive system for austere ascetic diets where he would give up food entirely to live on herbs or just qi. But why articulate atractylodes into this larger program?  Giving it this special meaning bound up the Xus with the sacredness of the mountains on which it grew. During the cataclysm the Mao mountains were to be the site where the Lord of the Dao from on High would descend to save the worthy. The Xus chances of being saved depended on two kinds of merit.  Firstly, the merit gained from persevering in their spiritual practices and achieving bio-spiritual transformation .  However, their access to these practices was due to the merits of their ancestor, Xu Ah, who compassionately dispensed drugs and food in the region during epidemic and famine.The salvific qualities of Atractylodes brought these two together, binding their elite heritage, and their spiritual practice, their past and their future, into a direct relationship with the land, the mountains and the local ecology of medicinal herbs. The very mountain where the Xus were destined to be saved was the same site Tao Hongjing had chosen for his own editorial efforts, both of the Declarations, and the Pharmacopoeia.  What of the Lady of Purple Tenuity’s knowledge of actractyldoes travelled into Tao’s Pharmacopoeia, written for the emperor, and intended for exoteric transmission outside? The eschatology, the other practices, the Xus disappear in that work. The pharmacopoeic format is regular and predictable, each entry proceeding with the drug’s name, flavours, temperature, toxicity, major functions and so on. Atractylodes is reported useful here for blockage syndrome in the limbs, which was Xu Mi’s condition, and for digestive problems, which correlates to Xu Lian’s fasting. Furthermore, Tao’s annotations report that “Transcendent Scriptures say” that it can suppress epidemic poxes and disperse evil qi, codewords for ghostly diseases, echoing the claims of the Discourse. Do these separate collections indicate broader cultural distinctions between religion and medicine, between recipes and pharmacopoeias, between local and centralized, or esoteric and exoteric knowledge?

1 On Shangqing massage techniques and their relationship to self-divinization see Michael Stanley-Baker, “Palpable Access to the Divine: Daoist Medieval Massage, Visualisation and Internal Sensation” Asian Medicine 7 (2012): 101-127. On the broader project, see here.

2 虎沫鳳腦,雲琅玉霜,太極月醴,三環靈剛。若以刀圭奏矣,神羽翼張,乃披空同之上文,煒燁元始之室。Declarations of the Perfected (Zhen’gao 真誥), Tao Honging ed.,DZ DZ 1016,  6.2b.

3 使五藏生華,守閉元關內存九真,三氣運液,而灌溉丹田。 Ibid., 6.3a-b.

4 乃可加以五雲   、水桂,朮根,黄精,南燭,陽草,東石,空青,松柏,脂實,巨勝,茯苓。竝養生之具。將可以長年矣。吾   又倶察草木之勝負。有速益於己者,竝未及朮勢之多驗乎。 Ibid., 6.3b. 5 餌靈朮以頤生,漱華泉於清川;研玄妙之祕   訣,誦太上之隱篇。於是高栖于峯岫,竝金石   而論年耶。  Ibid., 6.5b.