A Tale of Chiles, a Servant, and a Travelling Medical Scholar in Early Modern China

By Brian Dott

Fig. 1. A few of the many varieties of chiles available at a market in Kunming, Yunnan, China. (Image Credit: Dott, 2017)


Fascinated by early modern Chinese cultural history, I research popular religion, especially pilgrimage, and the culinary and medical uses of chile peppers.  Eating Sichuan food, I wondered “how did the Chinese begin to consume such a spicy, introduced plant?”  All the myriad varieties of the chile pepper originated in the Americas.  They probably reached China in the 1570s.  The earliest known Chinese source dates to 1591 (Gao Lian, Zunsheng bajian [Eight discourses on nurturing life]).  While past and present Chinese use chiles most for culinary flavoring, Chinese adoption and adaption of this American pod did not take off until the chile was classified medically and some of its empirical effects within the human body observed. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), there is no clear distinction between things taken into the body as sustenance and as medicine – everything taken in affects health.  Indeed, one medical text talking about chiles informs the reader: “To make medicine, chop finely, mix with pork fat and fry to make a dish” (Xu Wenbi, Xinbian shoushi chuanzhen [New compilation of the transmitted truths on longevity], 1771).  Furthermore, the earliest text to explicitly mention using chiles to flavor food is best described as a medical text (Shiwu bencao [Pharmacopeia of edible items], 1621).

As Carla Nappi has explored in her series of posts, Translating Recipes, some recipes read as stories or conversations.  Sharing medical recipes allows modern readers to listen in on narratives from the past.  A key author for my exploration is Zhao Xuemin (1719-1805).  Zhao was a medical practitioner and author who worked to update Chinese medical knowledge by including newly introduced ingredients (such as the chile pepper) and knowledge from less well-known practitioners.  He traveled extensively to consult with local experts, and incorporated materials from their manuscripts into his own work.  Indeed, less than a hundred years after his most famous work was completed, more than half of the works he cited were no longer extant (Bencao gangmu shiyi [Correction of omissions in the Systematic pharmacopeia]).

Chiles as Treatment for Malaria

Chiles were used as both a treatment for people who had contracted malaria and as a prophylactic to prevent infection.  A local history from Guangdong stated that “All [varieties of chiles] can remove water-borne malaria and disperse rheumatism.  . . .  In Guangxi malaria is even more prevalent.  One cannot go a single day without [them]” (Enping county gazetteer, 1766).  Zhao Xuemin recounts the following story about chiles and malaria:

Because [the chile’s] property is hot [it can act as a] dispersant by entering the heart and spleen meridians.  It can also disperse water damp.  In guihai (1743), I was in Lin’an [near Hangzhou], in the 6th month a young servant drank cold water and slept on the cold, damp ground, by autumn they had developed malaria.  [They took] myriad medicines without result.  In early winter, by chance [they] ate some chile paste.  They found this very palatable, and needed it with every meal.  In addition they also used [chiles] in a medicinal broth with meals.  Before long the malaria was cured. (Zhao Xuemin, Bencao gangmu shiyi, j. 8, 73b)

Zhao gives a scene setting – place and time.  He introduces the patient, including an emphasis on class, which indirectly provides an explanation for the poor choice of sleeping place.  Zhao also provides us with his explanation for how the infection occurred – conditions involving cold and water.  The heating and damp expelling characteristics of the chile are the traits Zhao sees as important for effecting this cure.  That the servant ate chile paste by chance means that it was probably commonly used, even in a region where the elite culinary traditions rejected strong flavors.  Here, we may be seeing class differences, as the lower classes in China tended to adopt the chile long before the elites.  Chiles could be homegrown, did not have to be purchased in a market, and helped make a starch-based diet tastier. 

The fact that the servant found the chile paste to be “palatable” reflects an understanding in TCM that an individual’s body can instill a craving for things it needs.  Furthermore, while that need and craving exist, strong or even unpleasant tastes and smells become bland or “palatable.”  Zhao is refreshingly candid that older cures (presumably including some of his own) had no effect.  We can also see the importance he placed on empirical knowledge – not just relying on systems and traditional classifications.  It appears that once he noticed an improvement in the patient’s condition, after the chance introduction of chile paste into their diet, Zhao introduced another form of chiles—medicinal broth – into the treatment regimen.  To modern readers, Zhao is frustratingly vague about the recipes for these treatments.  At one level, such details were probably not necessary for his intended audience – exact ingredients in the paste probably did not matter, as long as chiles were present, and everyone knew how to brew a medicinal broth.  More importantly, the anecdotal aspect of the description created an informal tone that may have made this treatment more believable to past readers than any mere list of ingredients.


For further reading (and recipes), see  Brian Dott, The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography, Columbia University Press, 2020.

Colouring metals in the Far East

By Agnese Benzonelli

How far can someone go in the name of research? In my case quite a long way. For a month, I loosely taped tiny plates of metal to my hands and woke up every morning with green stains on them. I was investigating craft recipes employed in the far East since the fourteenth Century to create coloured metal and alloys used for beautiful small artefacts. Whereas Western taste preferred the natural colour and the polished lustre of metals, the Eastern preference was to use the process of chemical patination, where different chemicals react with the surface of copper and copper alloys to form new coloured compounds.

Fig.1: Left: a tsuba (handguard of Japanese sword) made of shakudo and gold; BM-TS244. Right: a Chinese gu-tong box; BM-1992,1109.2. Photos made by A. Benzonelli.

The Japanese created a whole class of coloured alloys, called irogane. They added small amounts of different elements to the copper and simmered it in a solution containing copper salts, alum, vinegar and other ingredients, to form coloured patinas on the surface. The most beautiful patina, shakudo, was made with copper and gold and achieved a deep blue-black colour. Combining a variety of alloy compositions and solution ingredients, they were able to create hues ranging from pale brown to black. Inlaying different irogane, gold, silver, and lacquers, they were able to create small artefacts and swords fittings with complex and visually impressive designs and patterns.

Fig.2: Picture of the 13 Japanese solutions created and tested taken from Japanese recipes reported in Eastern books.

Later on, Chinese craftspeople imported the technique from Japan, possibly through travellers or trying to copy the Japanese artefacts, and, from the Ming period (1368-1644), they used it to colour ink or tobacco boxes. In contrast to the Japanese irogane, the Chinese would patinate a gold-silver alloy only, which resulted in a dark colour similar to that of shakudo, which they called gu-tong. In both cases, the precious metal content was 1-3%, a larger amount would not affect the final patina colour.

There’s not a lot known about the two different recipes the Chinese craftsmen employed to produce their patinas. However, we do know that one process they utilised was similar to that used by the Japanese to produce the irogane,butwe have no precise recipes for the solutions. Another involved handling the metal until the perspiration from their hands corroded the surface.

Creating and play with metal colours has always fascinated me. Why using gold and silver to achieve that dark colour, instead of cheaper alternatives? What was the role of the different ingredients used in the recipes? Could sweat really be used as a patinating solution? Why did Japanese recipes tell not add precious metals to bronze (copper alloyed with tin) but only to pure copper? Could it be confirmed through scientific analysis that the technology was really transmitted from the Japanese to the Chinese culture? To find answers, I needed to conduct a systematic experimental research which could explain the reasons behind the technological choices of Japanese and Chinese craftsmen.

 I reproduced a series of alloys with tin, gold and silver, which I then patinated, following the recipes for shakudo and gu-tong from available texts. These are not numerous, as the recipes were mainly kept as secret and passed from father to son. We have city records, information sheets given by dealers and, in Japan, technical texts on metal working. I analysed the resulting patinas with techniques borrowed from modern material science, and used the experimental data as reference for the interpretation of historical patinated artefacts in museum collections.

I found that, for both the Japanese and Chinese recipes, the presence of gold in the alloy did, in fact, change the colour of the final patinas, which resulted in a better, more uniform and darker hue. I also noted how parameters such as the fine grade of surface polishing prior to the patination, the use of tin-free alloys, the selection of copper acetate as a main ingredient and the addition of vinegar are all processes and actions that led to a reduced patina growth. And as it turned out, sweat was indeed an effective patinating solution in the Chinese patination (as it can be noticed by the green corrosion products left on the hands), but the presence of gold in the alloy composition is nonetheless essential to obtain a dark hue, not achieved in gold-free alloys. Sweat is a slightly acidic solution, similar to that of used by Japanese craftsmen, essential to create a coloured copper oxide on the surface in just 48 hours of handling. Similarly, in both technologies cleaning of the alloy before or after the procedure suggested in Japanese texts and the abrasive action of the hands in the Chinese method are both similar and crucial steps in the patination process. I concluded from these findings that a dark patina was not the only feature that the craftsmen of both cultures had been striving for. They also seemed to be after a shiny appearance, given by the metallic lustre coming from the alloy.

Fig. 3: Alloys of different compositions patinated with Chinese patination.

In combining experimental and historical observations I gained an understanding of the intentions behind the technological choices made by the Japanese and Chinese artisans. My analysis confirmed the deliberate nature of these choices made to achieve dark and shiny blue-black colours otherwise impossible. This confirmed the importance of colour as a driver of these artisanal processes, and supports the idea that the knowledge was transmitted between the two cultures.

Was it worth in the end – the green hands and other discomforts suffered in the name of research? It was the first study to provide a scientific basis to our knowledge of the methods and choices made by those people, the ingredients they employed in making dark patinated artefacts, and contributed to our pool of knowledge of the artisanal methods and practices described in historical sources. So yes, it definitely was, and I would definitively do it again.

Cold Wombs and Cold Semen: Explaining Sonlessness in Sixteenth-century China

By Yi-Li Wu

Figure 1. Depictions of boys at play were a popular Chinese decorative motif during the sixteenth century, imbued with auspicious meaning and conveying hopes for male offspring. This porcelain bowl was made in Jindezhen during the Jiajing reign period (1522–66). From the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Gift of Denise and Andrew Saul, 2001. Accession number 2001.738. On-line at https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/64484

Throughout imperial China, a family’s well-being and longevity required the birth of sons. [Fig. 1]  Sons performed the ancestral rites, inherited land, and were responsible for supporting aged parents. And only men could take the examinations for government office which conferred elite socio-economic status. But at age 40, Liu Xiaoting was still sonless (wu zi). He appealed to the physician Gong Tingxian (15`38-1635), promising him rich recompense if he could help. As Gong recorded in his influential treatise, Curing the Myriad Diseases (Wanbing huichun, preface dated 1587), Liu’s “male member was weak, and his semen was icy cold.” Furthermore, his pulses were flooding when felt at the first position (cun) at the wrist, but deep and faint at the third position (chi). Gong’s diagnosis: a profound deficiency of primordial qi (yuan qi), the source of all the body’s vitalities and material manifestations. This was caused, he explained, by excessive drinking and sexual indulgence.

Depletion from debauchery was a common diagnosis for upper-class men of the time, those who had the means to own concubines and patronize courtesans. Doctors agreed that such carousing exhausted the body’s vitalities, not least because male semen was produced from “essence” (jing), the vitality that enabled growth, generation, and reproduction. Besides depleting the body, excessive outflows of semen harmed the kidneys, the organs that produced, stored, and transformed essence.  To cure Liu, Gong prescribed a 16-ingredient formula called “Elixir to Solidify the Root and Strengthen Yang” (Guben jianyang dan) (see below).  After taking one recipe’s worth, Liu felt that his nether parts were warm again.  After an additional half-recipe, he felt recovered. To his great joy, he then begat a son. Liu subsequently shared the formula with a Liu Boting and a Liu Min’an (probably kinsmen) who also used it successfully. [Figs. 2 and 3]

Figs. 2 and 3: The recto and verso of a page from a seventeenth-century edition of Gong Tingxian’s Curing the Myriad Diseases, showing his recipe for Elixir to Solidify the Root and Strengthen Yang (Fig. 2, recto) and explaining how he used it to cure Liu Xiaoting (Fig. 3, verso). Note that Chinese books were read from right to left. From Expanded edition of “A Collection on Curing the Myriad Diseases” by Mr. Gong Yunlin, Confucian doctor (Zengbu ruyi Gong Yunlin xianshen Wanbing huichun ji), Renren shushe woodblock edition, 1641. Yulin was Gong Tingxian’s sobriquet (hao). In the collection of the Berlin State Library, Germany. Digitized and on-line at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-PK digitalisierte Sammlungen, permanent URL: http://resolver.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de/SBB000160F000000000.

Gong Tingxian placed Liu Xiaoting’s case in his discussion of “seeking descendants” (qiu si), which was part of a larger section on “women’s diseases” (fu ke).  “Descendants” here referred specifically to sons.  Although Chinese medical writings on childbearing focused primarily on the female body, people had also long recognized that male ailments could impede conception. These concerns were especially salient in Gong and Liu’s time, when population pressure, urbanization, and commercialization were creating new forms of socio-economic mobility and instability.  As Charlotte Furth has shown, this inspired a proliferation of writings on male self-cultivation and producing sons. Such material appeared in various textual genres, and it was not uncommon to find the reproductive illnesses of men discussed in chapters on women. These discussions assumed, furthermore, that a deficient man might still be able to father daughters, but that only a properly regulated male body would create sons. The question was how best to achieve that regulation.

In medical discussions of infertility, cold could refer to somatic sensations of chillness, as well as to a sense of deficiency and absence of vitality.  Writings on women were primarily concerned with ensuring the ample and free flow of female blood, which constituted the female seed, nourished the fetus, and later transformed into breast milk.  But doctors also worried about coldness in the womb, whether from an invading wind, or arising from internal depletion. Cold would cause female blood to stagnate and become corrupt.  But concerns about female cold were also expressed in terms of agricultural metaphors which portrayed the womb as a field that needed to be warm and nurturing to receive the male seed.

Women with cold wombs would simply not produce children. But when couples produced only girls, this suggested deficiencies in the man, who played a key role in determining the child’s sex. The various theories of sex selection might differ as to details, but they agreed that a man could produce boys by shooting (she) his seed into the woman on certain days, in a certain manner, at a certain point in the copulatory act.  Particularly important was the belief that both men and women released reproductive seed during orgasm, and that the fetus’ sex was determined by the seed that came last.  A man who wanted sons thus needed to bring his female partner to climax before releasing his own seminal essence. His semen also needed to be sufficiently “dense” (mi), lest it dribble uselessly out of the womb.

Coldness in men was thus associated with impaired copulatory function, manifesting as cold and watery seed and as a weak penis unable to control its emissions. Gong Tingxian’s fertility formula echoed this understanding, relying heavily on substances that were classified as “principal drugs for treating spermatorrhea” and/or as “principal drugs for treating impotence” in Li Shizhen’s authoritative  and encyclopedic Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu,preface dated 1590).  At the same time, Gong’s formula implicitly rebuked those who would treat male coldness with heating drugs.  This objection was rooted in a particular understanding of how cosmological yin and yang forces expressed themselves in the male body.

To simplify enormously: yang referred to things that were external, active, and hot, while yin was internal, receptive, and cool. Men were the yang of humankind, and male potency and fertility were understood as expressions of bodily yang. As a result, people routinely tried to treat sonlessness with heating drugs. But some doctors warned that too much heat would damage and consume yin, harming the kidneys (yin) and consuming its essence (yin). Excessive heat would sicken the man, and even if he managed to conceive a son, the heat would remain as a latent poison in the fetal body and the boy would die young. Instead, they argued that the proper way to regulate yang was to address the underlying deficiency of yin.  Gong Tingxian shared this viewpoint, and the key drugs in his prescription acted by nourishing bodily yin and the kidneys.  As Liu Xiaoting swallowed the dozens of pills that Gong prescribed, he may have had initial doubts about their efficacy. But the birth of his son would have convinced him that, at least in this instance, Gong’s approach to male coldness was the correct one.


Elixir to Solidify the Root and Build Yang (Guben jianyang dan)
Dodder seed (tu si zi) cooked in wine, one and a half taels[1]

White poria, root end (bai fu shen), skin and woody bits removed
Dioscorea (shan yao), steamed with wine
Achyranthes root (niu xi), stems removed, washed in wine
Eucommia bark (du zhong), washed in wine, skin removed, roasted until crisp
Angelica root, main body (dang gui shen), washed in wine
Cistanche (rou cong rong), soaked in wine
Schisandra fruit (wu wei zi), washed in wine
Black cardamom (yi zhi ren), stir-fried in salt water
Tender deer antler (nen lu rong), roasted until crisp
One tael each of the above

Prepared rehmannia (shu di), steamed in wine
Dogwood fruit (shan zhu yu), steamed in wine, the pit removed
Three taels each of the above

Sichuanese morinda (chuan ba ji), soaked in wine, the heart removed, two taels

Teasel (xu duan), soaked in wine
Milkwort (yuan zhi), processed
Cnidium seeds (she chuang zi), stir fried, the husks removed
One and a half taels each of the above

Ginseng (ren shen), two taels
Goji berries (go ji zi), two taels

Grind the above into a fine powder, and mix with honey to form pills as large as the seeds of the parasol tree. For each dose, take 50 to 70 pills on an empty stomach, washed down with salt water. With wine is also fine. Before bedtime, take another dose. If the woman’s monthly affair is already concluded, then this is the time for planting sons, and if one takes three doses a day, that is no problem.  If essence is not stable, then add dragon bone (long gu) and oyster shell (mu li), heated in fire and quenched in salted wine three to five times. Use one tael, three mace of each. Moreover, add five taels of tender deer horn.

[1] The weight of the tael (Ch. liang) has varied over time, but during Gong Tingxian’s lifetime would have been equivalent to approximately 37 grams.  A mace (Ch. qian) is one-tenth of a tael.


Yi-Li Wu is a Center Associate of the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (US).  She earned a Ph.D. in history from Yale University and was previously a history professor at Albion College (USA) for 13 years.  Her publications include Reproducing Women: Medicine, Metaphor, and Childbirth in Late Imperial China (University of California Press, 2010) and articles on gender and the body; medical illustration; forensic medicine, and Chinese views of Western anatomical science.  She is currently completing a book manuscript on the history of wound medicine in 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, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/cvty3qqk
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, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/cvty3qqk

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 http://pudl.princeton.edu/objects/fn107159v
Figure 2. Luo Benli ed. Bian yong liang fang. Vol. 2b, p. 50b. c. 1796-1820. Princeton University Library. Downloadable PDF available at http://pudl.princeton.edu/objects/fn107159v

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.

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