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.

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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

Add:
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.

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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.

How Best to Treat the Heat in 1793 Beijing

By Marta Hanson

Translating traditional Chinese medical terms into modern English forces one to consider dramatic changes in medicine over the past two centuries. Take, for example, the modern Chinese phrase fa re for “fever,” which literally means “to produce (fa) heat (re).” Although today it refers to elevated body temperature, traditionally it referred to the preternatural heat that patients experienced dispersed throughout their bodies and only sometimes referred to elevated skin temperature.[1] In fact, before the late 19th-century, the English term “fever” also contained multivalent meanings and multifarious patterns of excessive heat.[2] Fever in the sense of having a temperature above the 97.3 to 99.5 °F human range was not even defined in western medicine, nor a convenient clinical thermometer invented to measure it, until the late 1860s.[3] Although many of the febrile-related symptoms that fall under the Chinese disease concept “Hot diseases” (rebing) could fit under the biomedical umbrella of acute-infectious diseases, in classical Chinese medicine they were originally conceptualized as caused by climatic configurations of qi (i.e., vital energy/matter).[4]

The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon: Basic Questions (ca. 1st c. BCE) originally distinguished two types of Hot diseases related to different types of climatic qi. The first included an acute-onset febrile disorders caused by external pathogenic qi related to changing seasons or local weather. The second was a type of “Cold Damage” (shanghan) acquired in the winter but which went dormant until the heat of the spring or summer manifested it as excessive heat and internally impairing dryness. The first Inner-Canon definition that Hot diseases could be due to other types of pathogenic climatic qi also facilitated conceptualizing epidemics as due to pathogenic environmental qi unrelated to the winter cold or local climate.[5] Nonetheless, no matter the original cause when excessive heat was the result, it had to be expelled.

An interesting case of disagreement on how best to “treat the heat” occurred in Beijing during a febrile epidemic (wenyi) in the spring and summer of 1793. The Qing official, Ji Yun (1724–1805) unusually responded to this epidemic by comparing the success rate of three therapeutic drug strategies. The first, associated with Zhang Jiebin (1563-1640), resulted in 80–90% mortality. The second, promoted by Wu Youxing (1582?-1652), was no more effective. But a third formula created by the living doctor, Yu Lin (ca. late 18th cent.), had successfully cured the concubine of the Chief Minister of the Court of State Ceremonies, Feng Yingliu (1741–1801) with a strong gypsum-based formula.[6] Ji noted that those who witnessed this were shocked but those who followed his method ended up saving countless lives.[7]

The three competing cures in Ji’s short anecdote illustrate well how Cold and Heat were the main metaphors used to understand the cause of epidemics and legitimate drug choices for treating them. Zhang’s “warming and tonifying” (wenbu) tonics were based on what the Cold Damage Treatise (Shanghan lun, ca. 220 CE) recommended for treating Hot diseases (believed to have their origin in winter Cold manifested in the summer). These included warming herbs such as Cassia twig (guizhi) and Ephedra (mahuang) to release cold via the exterior and Aconite (fuzi) to warm the exterior and expel cold.  [See rebing entry to far left in Figure 1]

Medication chart from the Gold-Dusted Cold Damage [Treatise] (Shanghan diandian jin, completed 1341, date of this printing unknown). Image credit: Wellcome Collection.
 Wu’s “purgative” (gongxia) formulas contained Rhubarb root and rhizome (dahuang) to purge downward, and even Betel Nut (binglang) to expel pathogenic qi.  Wu termed this anomalous qi (yiqi), deviant qi (liqi), or pestilential qi (liqi) in his Treatise on Febrile Epidemics (Wenyi lun, 1642). [See figure 2] As He Bian has written on this blog, Chinese rhubarb had its heyday in the eighteenth century, yet not all physicians were in accord with its suitability during epidemics.

 

Rhubarb from Li Shizhen’s Systematic Materia Medica (Bencao Gangmu) printed in 1596.

The third author named in this story, Yu Lin, later became famous for his recipe titled: “Epidemic-Clearing and Toxin-Dispersing Beverage” (Qing wen bai du yin). [8]  The fourteen-ingredient recipe was based on a combination of the White Tiger Decoction (baihu tang) that cleared out heat on the exterior with two other formulas.[9]  Yu’s recipe, however, featured crude gypsum (i.e., the “White Tiger”) in quantities at least three times the other main ingredients (raw foxglove root, rhinoceros horn, and coptis root). This made it an extremely Cold formula, and potentially life-threatening for those who thought Cold was the underlying cause and so used Zhang’s formulas. For Yu, however, Gypsum’s cold-cooling quality cleared excessive heat accumulated in the stomach system. [Figure 3 depicts this heat-clearing function of gypsum at the center of the man’s chest).

Depiction for White Tiger Decoction in Illustrations and Explanation of the Major Formulas of the Cold Damage Treatise (Shanghan lun dafang tu jie, 1833). Image credit: Wellcome Collection.

Expelling pathogenic Cold qi and warming the interior with aconite and cassia twigs, purging pestilential qi through the bowls with rhubarb, and clearing out the pathogenic Heat from the stomach with gypsum were thus all therapeutic strategies at play during the 1793 epidemic in the capital. The first framed the cause of the epidemic in latent winter cold that had to be dispersed. The second saw it as externally contracted pestilential qi that needed to be purged. Finally, the third considered it excessive heat that had to be cleared. Despite these major differences all three approaches nonetheless treated the febrile symptoms subsumed under fa re or, in the modern term, “fevers” as something that drugs could manage by adjusting the internal balance of Hot and Cold.

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Translations for Figures 1 and 3

Figure 1: From right to left are listed three disease concepts – Cold Damage, Wind Damage, and Hot Diseases. Their commonly used formulas are written below. The six formulas listed under rebing are from right going down and then to left going down: With sweat cassia twig decoction (han guizhi tang), Cassia twig and gypsum decoction (guizhi jia shigao), Cassia twig decoction together with gypsum, anemarrhena, cohosh, and ephedra (guizhi jia shigao zhimu sheng[ma] ma[huang], Without sweat ephedra decoction (wuhan mahuang tang), Evening produced (i.e., heat) gardenia, cohosh, and ephedra decoction (wan fa zhizi sheng[ma] ma[huang]), and Cassia twig decoction with ephedra and gypsum (guizhitang jia mahuang shigao).

Figure 3: From the right to left across the top is written. 1) “The assistant [drug] Amemarrhena (zhima) disperses dryness [and] produces jin [fluids].” 2) the space below the chin reads “protects the lungs.” 3) and to the left is written “licorice (gancao) harmonizes the stomach and rice (gengmi) assists the stomach qi.” 4) The 5-character phrases on either side of the oblong circle together state the therapeutic strategy “[When] the pathogenic [qi] has already changed into Fire, then clear, cool, and make it disperse.5)  In the long oval at the center of the body, the phrase instructs: “When it [i.e., the Fire} enters the stomach, use gypsum.”

[1] Nathan Sivin, Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China, Science, Medicine, & Technology in East Asia 2 (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1987), xxiv-xxv, 86, 108.

[2] Christopher Hamlin, More Than Hot: A Short History of Fever, Johns Hopkins Biographies of Disease (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2014).

[3] J.M.S. Pearce, “A brief history of the clinical thermometer,” QJM: An International Journal of Medicine 95.4 (1 April 2002): 251-52. Thomas Clifford Allbutt (1836-1925) invented the 6-inch thermometer that was first able to record a temperature in 5 minutes in 1866 and in 1868 Carl Wunderlich, using a foot-long thermometer put in the axilla (i.e., armpit), established the normal range from 36.3 to 37.5 °C or 97.3 to 99.5 °F.

[4] Shigehisa Kuriyama, “Epidemics, Weather, and Contagion in Traditional Chinese Medicine,” in Lawrence I. Conrad and Dominik Wujastyk, eds., Contagion: Perspectives from Pre-Modern Societies, (Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2000), 3-22.

[5] Marta Hanson, Speaking of Epidemics in Chinese Medicine: Disease and the geographic imagination in late imperial China (London: Routledge, 2011), 16-17.

[6] Gypsum is monoclinic calcium sulfate. See discussion of this episode in Hanson, Speaking of Epidemics, 2011, 126-27.

[7] Ji Yun 紀昀, Yuewei caotang biji 閱微草堂筆記(Jottings from Yuewei Hall), printed 1800. Repr. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1980. Passage in juan 18, jotting #24, 458-9. Online access https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=gb&file=36038&page=45&remap=gb

[8] Jian Min Wen and Garry Seifert, translators, Warm Disease Theory, Wēn bing xúe (Brookline, Mass.: Paradigm Publications, 2000), 141.

[9] White Tiger Decoction is used to treat an illness pattern with great heat, thirst, and sweating and a surging and large pulse. For analysis of the logic of the formula see Craig Mitchel, Feng Ye, Nigel Wiseman, Shang Han Lun: On Cold Damage: Translations & Commentaries (Brookline, Mass.: Paradigm Publications, 1999), 316-24

Storytelling and Practical Skills in Medical Recipes

By Ying Zhang

What constituted a medical recipe in late imperial China? Literati physicians often touted the efficacy of a medical formula by contending that it conforms to traditional order of the emperor and his officials. They might also praise the suitability of the drug combination for treating that individual body’s ills. (See discussion on drug knowledge in China elsewhere on this blog). While texts by literati physicians have attracted most scholarly attention, they might not contain some of the most widely circulated and used medical recipes in everyday settings. People in late imperial China had access to a wide range of vernacular texts to find a recipe for self-treatment. During this period, we see the circulation of many practice-oriented recipes through vernacular literature as well as personal networks. These sources included daily-use encyclopedias, almanacs, meritorious books, and fiction. These recipes functioned as a practical instruction for domestic use and a textual form that articulated practical health care knowledge through literary narratives. They highlighted the techniques of making medicine as an essential part of a medical recipe that non-expert could follow in their own homes.

The first page of the “Recipe from a bare-foot immortal for pills made with fish maw to help insemination.” Image credit: Berlin State Library.

One fascinating example which I’d like to bring to you today is the “Recipe from a bare-foot immortal for pills made with fish maw to help insemination,” which was collected and recorded in A Convenient Survey of Medical Recipes (Yifang bianlan), a manuscript written by a person with the sobriquet Gaoyangshi in the nineteenth century. This recipe presents a story at its beginning, which starts with the encounter in a certain famous mountain between an immortal and a sixty-one-year old men with the surname Zhou from Yunnan who has one wife and nine concubines but has been unable to conceive a child:

…[Zhou] talked about his family [with the immortal], saying that he does not have any children and asking for a good recipe. Moved by his sincerity, the immortal gave him a recipe. The medicine [made according to the recipe] has a character that is clearing but not cooling, warming but not heating. If men take it, [it] could strengthen the muscles and bones, invigorate the vitality, replenish the marrow, nourish the yin, and reinforce the primordial. If women take it, it could regulate the menstrual period, replenish the Blood, prevent miscarriage, regulate the qi, benefit the yin, and ease fertilization. Zhou bowed and received it [meaning the recipe] (bai er shou zhi), and refined and mixed [the medicine] according to the recipe (yi fang xiuhe)…

Following the story, the recipe lists the individual drugs required and, after each drug, it provides instructions on how to process it. For the chuan fuzi (Aconitum carmichalii Debx, Chinese aconite) from Sichuan, for instance, one needs to select the following:

Two pieces with each weighing four liang and five qian, cut off their sprouts and cut each of them into four pieces, soak them with raw gancao (Glycyrrhiza uralensis, Licorice) water for seven days, change the water every morning, and then cover them with half jin of wet flour, heat until cooked over a slow charcoal fire, cut them into pieces, and then heat to dry.

At the end of its drug list, the recipe summarizes, “to cook and make the listed drugs according to the [described] methods” (yi shang zhu yao ru fa paozhi). The word “paozhi” here refers to processing the drugs according to the methods listed under each drug. The recipe then continues with instructions on how to grind the drugs into powders and mix the powders into pills, and also explains the way to take the medicine.

It is interesting to note that the story at the beginning of the recipe uses the word “yi fang xiuhe,” a more general term referring to all of the work from processing individual drugs to mixing them together into pills. It suggests that the recipe worked well exactly because Mr. Zhou made the pills following all the technical details required by the recipe as a way of self-cultivation and demonstrated his piety in the making process. It was Mr. Zhou, not any physician or pharmacy, made the pills. The narrative episodes not only validated the efficacy by stating the mythical origin of the recipe, but also affirmed the efficacy by stating that this Mr. Zhou then had seven sons after taking the pills and lived to ninety-seven years old. They thereby presented the production of medicine as a personal endeavor that anyone could pursue. While the recipe exhibited a world of practical skills to handle medical substances and required utensils, the story advertised these specialized skills of drug processing as everyday household knowledge. The story also functioned to attract collectors through literary embellishment. This was especially desirable when recipes traveled out of medical contexts and became collectable artifacts in the context of literati sociability, connoisseurship, and moral practice. Recipes garnished with literary creation and moral teaching in this context usually encouraged its collectors to distribute it to more people to accumulate merit. Thus, when we exam the circulation and use of recipes out of medical context, we could find storytelling an essential part of medical recipes intended for household use.

Ying Zhang received her Ph.D. degree from Johns Hopkins University in 2017. Her dissertation titled “Household Healing: Rituals, Recipes, and Morals in Late Imperial China” investigates China’s rich tradition of household healing practices and reinterprets these practices in relation to religion, gender roles, and morality from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century. Drawing on a wide range of texts people used in their daily healing practices and texts about household healing, this research contributes to a deeper understanding of the heterogeneous health-related practices beyond the domain of learned medicine. It demonstrates the various ways in which the home served as a central site of healing technology in late imperial China. Through the study of the circulation of health related texts, it also sheds new light on the circulation of information in the context of literati sociability, philanthropic activities, and religious commitment in late imperial China. She can be reached at yzhang82@jhu.edu.

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

Originally posted on China Policy Institute: Analysis

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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.

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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.

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