Category Archives: Early Modern China

Fetch Me at Pearl Nest Street: Rhubarb Pills as Panacea in Qing China

He Bian

In the late eighteenth century, American ginseng opened up a new niche market in Qing China. At the same time, Chinese rhubarb (dahuang) roots, harvested from the northwest regions of the empire, were transported by Chinese traders all the way to the southeast coast and sold off to foreign customers in Canton (Figure 1). Part of these transactions took place in the Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa Islands), a vassal state of the Qing but also an important node of global trade that crisscrossed the West Pacific. At some point in 1789, the Qing court issued an edict to the Ryukyu king that explicitly forbade him from selling rhubarb to Russians, with whom the Qing was then engaging in an all-out trade war. Rhubarb featured prominently in the Qing strategy because they believed that Europeans imported so much of this drug that they could not live a day without it.[1]

Figure 1. Chinese or Turkish rhubarb (Rheum palmatum): flowering and fruiting stem with leaf. Coloured zincograph after M. A. Burnett, c. 1842. Credit: Wellcome Collection,
Figure 1. Chinese or Turkish rhubarb (Rheum palmatum): flowering and fruiting stem with leaf. Coloured zincograph after M. A. Burnett, c. 1842. Credit: Wellcome Collection,

Yet is it really true that pharmacological visions in early modern China and Europe were so different that they could not possibly reach a consensus over rhubarb’s properties ? Classical Chinese pharmaceutical literature listed rhubarb as a drug with a “very cold” nature, and generations of physicians were taught not to use the cold drug in curing cold-natured diseases. This suggested that Russians (and other Westerners, as seen in this post on rhubarb in early modern England) had different bodies than the Qing Chinese, as they depended on rhubarb as an all-round cure. Pharmacological theories, in other words, engendered a vision of difference that seemed insurmountable.

During my recent reading of Qing medical recipe books, however, I discovered that rhubarb in fact functioned as nothing short of a panacea for Qing Chinese. This is evident in the text Bianyong liangfang (Excellent Recipes for Expedient Use), which appeared in the Jiaqing reign (1796-1820). Compact (only 2-juan in length) and very nicely printed (with carved woodblocks), it arranges pills, powders, tinctures, and decoctions by symptom. The book has about 120 pages, and most recipes are merely a few lines in length. What surprised me was that one very long recipe at the end of the text takes up the entirety of 13 pages. The remedy in question, mi shou Qingning wan (Secretly transmitted pill of purity and tranquility), calls for “several dozen pounds” of good quality rhubarb roots as the principal ingredient. Rubbed clean and steeped in rice water, the rhubarb was sliced, sun-dried, processed with “ash-less good rice liquor” for three days, and then put through a lengthy, elaborate protocol of fifteen rounds of steaming. Each steam involved a different set of herbs. Finally, makers took the resultant rhubarb paste, mixed it with “yellow ox milk” (using cooked honey as substitute if there was no milk), boy’s urine, ginger juice, and rolled it into tiny pills. The recipe listed hundreds of common illnesses that could be treated with this pill, ranging from headache and hemorrhage to gynecological disorders.

Figure 2. Luo Benli ed. Bian yong liang fang. Vol. 2b, p. 50b. c. 1796-1820. Princeton University Library. Downloadable PDF available at
Figure 2. Luo Benli ed. Bian yong liang fang. Vol. 2b, p. 50b. c. 1796-1820. Princeton University Library. Downloadable PDF available at

I have tried to look up this recipe in earlier Chinese medical texts, and my preliminary findings suggest that it probably came into existence no earlier than the seventeenth century. It became wildly popular in the eighteenth century, and recipe books serve as evidence of its widespread consumption. On the last page of Bianyong liangfang (Figure 2), the compiler, Luo Benli, announced that he had a batch of rhubarb pills prepared during his tenure in Guizhou – a southwestern province of China – and that, in case of emergency, readers could “call upon my house on Pearl Nest Street” and look for the “residence of Mr. Luo of the Ministry of Defense (bingbu Luo zhai).” Pearl Nest Street (zhuchaojie), a neighborhood in Qing Beijing not far from the Forbidden City, featured prime real estate. As a military official who had served in the frontier provinces, Luo was less bound by medical norms of the day and possessed the financial and political capital to manufacture elaborate pills like these. Was there, in other words, a sub-culture of health and medication championed by military elites such as Luo, which stood distinct from classical prescriptions?

One last word about this recipe that hints at a hidden connection between different cultural realms in early modern China: Sun Xingyan (1753-1818), a prominent scholar who combed through medieval sources for fragments of ancient texts, published the same recipe for Pill of Purity and Tranquility in his scholarly series. The inclusion of this Qing text alongside ancient monographs so bewildered modern bibliographers that they mistakenly attributed the recipe’s author to a seventh-century figure. In fact, Sun Xingyan made it clear that it was a contemporary remedy and provided an elaborate scholarly argument to defend rhubarb’s all-around efficacy to cure both hot and cold-natured illnesses. He also suggested that “vulgar physicians” despised the pill because if everyone had access to this remedy then their businesses would be lost. Therefore it does appear that, when it comes to rhubarb, Qing Chinese scholars and military commanders were no less enthusiastic than what they imagined about the Russians.


[1] I recommend this excellent essay by Chang Che-Chia (translated by Penelope Barrett) for more on this curious episode.

Translating Recipes 14: Recipes in Time and Space, Part 8 – BETWEEN 3

[This is the third of a three-part posting on BETWEEN-ness in recipes and their translation. For the first two parts, see here and here.]

The following is a translation of our long-translated Manchu medical recipe in dialogue form, to explore the between-ness of the recipe through a conversation among materials: fluid, powder, and flesh. In this dialogue-shaped translation of the recipe, the major characters are the major materials interacting in the story. There are three of them – Oil, Flour, Flesh – with an early cameo by Spoon. Here, the medium of the conversation is not sound, but instead touch and movement. When speech is touch rather than sound – when voicing is touching and enabling your conversation partner to be touched, moving and enabling your partner to be moved – then the conversation works somewhat differently from what we tend to expect. Here, a single instance of touching functions as a single unit of this touch-speech. The conversation becomes a dialogue in gestures and movements over, across, with, etc. The problem that animates the dialogue is the event that stimulates and initiates movement; resolution is the circumstance in which movement eases. It is a critical issue that must be resolved: a body has been poisoned.

Between: A Dialogue in Touch








Flour: (pillowed powder pile, then a smooth arc planes the surface as a small spoon cuts through to measure out a portion)

Spoon: (smoothes a concavity in the powder before cradling it away to a bowl and releasing it to its next home)

Flour: (bids farewell, dissolving into liquid and becoming something new)

Flesh: (suffering from a relationship with a substance that does not wish it well; welcomes flour in its new liquid form, into its throatspace and down and down)

Flour: (meets flesh, tries to soothe its suffering as it passes through the throat and down, roils the unkind substance poisoning the flesh and tries to bring it back up and out again)

Flesh: (pulses after ejecting the flour from itself)

Oil: (pours from container to handflesh)

Flesh: (flesh slides on flesh to warm the oil; hands slide oil over belly)

Oil: (warms and slides and soaks into belly and hands)

Flesh: (bucks and roils, breaks and bleeds, angry and unplacated)

Oil: (keeps trying; drops into meat broth – or drops into buttered milk – and mixes and swirls)

Flesh: (takes the oil back into its throatspace and down and down and retches and roils and drinks…and again…and again…)

Oil: (pours from container to handflesh)

Flesh: (still roiling; flesh slides on flesh to warm the oil; hands slide oil over belly)

Oil: (warms and slides and soaks into belly and hands…and again…and again…)

Flesh: (roiling and retching…but less…and less…and on like that more and more gently…)

Oil: (sliding and dropping…now more faintly…and gently…and more gently)

Flesh: (stillness)

Oil: (stillness)

Translating Recipes 13: Recipes in Time and Space, Part 7 – BETWEEN 2

[This is the second of a three-part posting on BETWEEN-ness in recipes and their translation. For the first part, see here.]

Happy new year, readers of the Translating Recipes series! When last we met, I was telling you about the latest exploration of “Recipes in Time and Space” with some early thoughts on between-ness in recipes and beyond. We left off by considering the characteristics of the dialogue, a storytelling genre that embodies the spirit of between. You might want to take a moment to revisit that post, which addressed the importance of some basic components of the dialogue form: character, speech, and problem. Briefly put, in translating our Manchu medicinal recipe we would expect to see characters that are involved in some sort of a relationship speaking to one another about a central problem that animates the conversation.

For your reference and reminding, here is a straightforward rendering of the Manchu recipe that has been the focus of this series of translations:

A medicinal oil eliminating (harmful) poison.

One kind [of oil] used if a person has just been poisoned.

Before eliminating the poison, after taking a flour-based drug in accordance with the 30th prescription, and after that drug causes the poison to be vomited up, spread this oil on the navel part of the stomach.

If the person has consumed so much poison that a lot of internal things are going wrong and the condition has become very serious, after taking 15 – 20 drops of the oil and combining it with either the fatty broth from boiled meat, or butter combined with milk, drink it. Having already smeared this oil on the navel part of the stomach again after 2 erin periods, the following day smear it again two times.

If this has still not eliminated the poison, after taking one or more drops of this medicinal oil again according to the prescription, if you smear it according to the prescription all will be well.

When I think of translation as rendering, my thoughts now turn to the work of STS scholar and anthropologist Natasha Myers. We recently had a chance to talk about her new book, which explores many different senses of “rendering” – separating, surrendering, modeling, deciphering, and more – in a study that emphasizes the importance of movement and kinesthetics in making knowledge. That linking of rendering, movement, and materiality has inspired how I approach translation here, and specifically how I think about translating relationships and between-ness.

With that in mind, the translation that follows – a translation of our Manchu medical recipe in a spirit that emphasizes the between-ness inherent in the text – is going to take us back to the materiality of the recipe, letting us linger over the physical matter of the story and thus helping us understand the ways that between-ness creates material experience. This is a world where speech happens not with words, but in patterns of materials. What does the voice of a powder sound like? Is sound even the right medium for understanding the voicing of a powder? Can we hear it at all, or do we instead feel this voice via touch? What does the voice of a liquid sound (or feel) like? How do these voices communicate with each other in telling a larger story?

The translation takes the form of a dialogue, and this dialogue becomes a conversation among materials: flour, oil, flesh. Each material will have its own voice. (Though we are accustomed to associating speech and voice with the sonic, here voicing is something that happens through touch, not through sound.) The conversation will allow us to explore the conversational aspects of material experience itself. Thinking about the voices of powders and liquids and flesh in this way will help us to understand materials as individuals that engage in relationships with one another, that grow and develop and change as a result of those relationships. Tune in to Thursday’s post to read the full translation!

Translating Recipes 12: Recipes in Time and Space, Part 6 – BETWEEN

By Carla Nappi

(This is part of an ongoing series of posts exploring prepositional attitudes and their translation in recipe literature. For the previous posts, check out this link.)

In the most recent posts of the “Translating Recipes” series, we have been exploring various ways that recipe literature creates relationships among bodies in space and time. (The premise undergirding this experiment is that material experience emerges from these relationships.) We have been looking specifically at the ways that prepositions and related kinds of terms function as grammatical and linguistic technologies that create proximities among bodies in time and space: with-ness, if-ness, afterness, etc. Today we’ll consider another of these tools: between-ness. Returning to the spirit from which the “Translating Recipes” project initially emerged – considering the literary form of the recipe as a vehicle for storytelling – this entry and the next will explore the way between works by looking at a storytelling genre that embodies the spirit of interaction, conversation, and between: the dialogue.

The dialogue format integrates a number of key elements. Typically, a dialogue is understood to be a conversation, an oral or written rendering of speech among characters. The dialogue might center on a problem and take the shape of an argument or debate: we can see this in some classic examples of the form that are familiar to many historians of science and medicine, including Plato’s dialogues and Galileo’s Dialogue upon the Two Main Systems of the World. This exceptionally brief description of dialogue makes reference to some important basic components of the form: character, speech, and problem. Let’s consider what these might look like in the context of a medicinal recipe.

Character. There are several ways to think about the centrality of character in the context of a recipe. We might imagine the drugs, patients, and other material actors in a recipe as they are embroiled in a drama, for example, or consider them more allegorically as characters in a fairy tale. In the context of a dialogue, the interaction of the characters is of paramount importance, and so they should explicitly be involved in some sort of a relationship. There are clear relationships in an anti-poison recipe: between poison and the drug used to treat it, poison and the patient’s body, the body and the drug. And so a translation of the recipe in this spirit would need to reflect at least one of these character relationships. (Ideally, in order to maximally explore the importance of relationships, more than one would be reflected in the translation: in that way. the relationships themselves become characters and we would be able to explore a dialogue among the relationships themselves.)

Speech. Fundamental to the nature of a written dialogue is its ability to embody and convey speech in some form: the text itself becomes a kind of vocalization, and – importantly – we as readers can imagine that the characters are not just interacting with one another, but are also performing their speech for the benefit of the audience of readers. As a result, in our translated recipe it would be important to convey this aspect of textual oratory. The form of the text would be crucial to this: each of our characters, as they explore their relationships and the problems emergent therein, would be given an opportunity to take the page and have the floor.

Problem. In many textualized dialogues, the speakers are not merely speaking, but are speaking with each other in an effort to debate or resolve something: a problem, an argument, a disagreement. There should be a sense, by the conclusion of the text, that some issue has been resolved. Our translation would need to convey this sense of dramatic conflict and ultimate resolution. In the case of the Manchu recipe that we’ve been focusing on for the “Recipes in Time and Space” series, this is a natural fit with the conditions from the which the recipe emerges: a crisis wherein a body has been poisoned and demands an immediate remedy (or as close to it as can be managed). At the successive stages of the recipe there are multiple points of possible resolution or the marked absence thereof, and these points of resolution (or not) motivate further action on the part of the readers/users of the text.

In the next post, we’ll continue these reflections and look closely at a new translation of our Manchu medical recipe that embodies a spirit of between in its form and mode of storytelling, in light of the reflections above. Tune in next time!