Revisiting Carla Nappi’s “Translating Recipes 1: Narrating Qing Bodies”

Editor’s Note: Today we revisit a classic post from our archives on Late Imperial China by Carla Nappi, which sits the intersection of medicine and storytelling. “Narrating Qing Bodies” kicked off an extended series of translations and commentaries on original Manchu recipes that ran on the blog from 2014 to 2015. You can find the entire series, Translating Recipes, at this link. As you will see, we leave off with quite a cliffhanger, so please do check out the second installment, A Drama of Butter and Pearls, for the dramatic conclusion. Enjoy! (Joshua Schlachet)

By Carla Nappi (Originally published January, 2014)

Image from the manuscript of Dergici toktobuha Ge ti ciowan lu bithe, from a manuscript (Mandchou 289) in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

I study and write about the history of science and medicine in early modern Eurasia, with a focus on China in that context. In particular, I’m interested in how medical and culinary recipes were translated in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, and how the recipe format became a medium of epistemic exchange across early modern Eurasia.

A text that has been particularly exercising me lately is the Xiyang yaoshu 西洋藥書 [Handbook of Western Drugs]. It was written by two French Jesuits, Joachim Bouvet (1656 – 1730) and Jean-François Gerbillon (1654-1707), some time after they had arrived at the court of the Kangxi Emperor in 1688. The book itself was smaller than a modern passport. It begins with a series of thirty-six recipes for treating myriad illnesses, many of which were broken down into varieties on a common theme. After this, the text opens out into almost forty further discussions of drugs and illnesses, many roughly translated from European-language texts about health and the body.

Importantly, the text was written in a language called Manchu, one of the official languages of the Qing court and a crucial medium of translation of scientific and medical knowledge during the Kangxi Emperor’s reign. Many of the recipes used the Manchu script to transliterate the names for drugs in Chinese, French, Latin, and other languages. The text contains many recipes for making remedies for poisons of all kinds.

Reading through this text, I began to think deeply about these recipes as literary objects. What if we understand a recipe not just as a kind of text, but also as a form of storytelling? If a recipe does tell a story, what kind of story might that be? And how might understanding recipes in this way change the way we read and experience them?

Thus began the Qing Bodies project, a long-term multi-media foray into considering various forms of scientific and medical writing in the Qing period from the perspective of a history of storytelling. Qing Bodies asks a very simple, but potentially transformative, question: how might reading Qing medical and scientific texts with an eye to narrative form open up creative possibilities for working and writing with the history of Eurasian science and medicine? This has been tremendous fun, to put it mildly!

One recent experiment stemming from this project (and inspired by the work of Raymond Queneau) has led to me thinking about the relationship between recipes and drama. Can we map a recipe onto–for example–a traditional three-act dramatic form? And how might that change how we experience recipes as literature?

If Act I of the recipe introduces the protagonist (or protagonists), sets out the conflict, and presents the incident that will set the ensuing events in motion, Act II introduces an obstacle for the main character and brings the protagonist to a moment of crisis. Act III resolves the crisis. Here, the recipe becomes a story involving characters (drugs, a body in crisis) that are transformed through their interactions in time.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll share the result of this experiment with you…

British? Or European?: George III’s dinner table and the taste of the nation, 1788-1801

By Rachel Rich and Lisa Smith

James Gillray, ‘Temperance enjoying a frugal meal’, 28 July 1792. Image credit: Wellcome Collections, London.

If we are what we eat, and the king is the father of the nation, then George III’s menus must have something to tell us about who the British people were at the end of the eighteenth century, as Britain moved from early modernity to modernity. As patriotism in the face of perceived French aggression gave way to a new sense of nationalism and national identity, it is revealing that the British persisted in giving their most elegant menu items French names and even French flavours.

Thanks to a grant from the British Academy (as part of their ‘Tackling the UK’s International Challenges’ scheme), we are–along with Adam Crymble–digitizing and analysing the royal household’s menus for each day when they were in residence at Kew Palace between 1788 and 1801. Doing this allows us to understand what was served each day, how it was served, and what kinds of ingredients were necessary to keep the kitchens going, and to keep the nation’s first family on their feet.

It is quickly apparent that the royal family’s meals were dependent on a number of networks. At Kew, food was prepared in one building, then carried to multiple buildings (the princesses, guests, and King, for example, all resided in different houses) and multiple dining rooms (even the main building had separate tables for the king, queen, equerries, etc.) around Kew. Kinship and friendship networks were at work providing local game and produce through the tradition of giving gifts of food.

Britain’s naval and imperial position in the world is well-documented in the menus, with numerous spices and condiments listed as staples of the grocery and oilery lists that had to be approved by the Board of Green Cloth. Britain’s place in Europe, even while France went through its revolution and war was declared, remained firm with French, German, Dutch and Italian dishes appearing frequently at their majesties’ table. As these overlapping and interlocking networks and trade routes suggest, to understand British identity is also to understand that Britain was a part of Europe, even as the metropole of an Empire that had yet to reach the height of its global power.

Writing about the late nineteenth century, April Bullock has argued that recipes were sources of cosmopolitanism, a way for aspiring middle-class men and women to experience the exoticism of abroad from the comfort of their own table. A century earlier, this kind of dining-chair travel was only available to the elite, and George III’s menus might, indeed, be representative of the ways in which people sought to recreate earlier experiences—of travel and adventure, or of the comfort they had known elsewhere—on a daily basis in the domestic realm. The question, though, is what the elite desire for foreign flavours in the domestic dining room actually meant. Does an ethnically German and proudly British King, for example, eat Dutch ‘Metworst’ and Italian ‘macarony’ because he is British or because he is foreign? And if Kew was the royal family’s retreat from the glare of public life, did the food they eat there reflect their real tastes or the fashion of the moment? 

Our diets are one of the areas that most quickly reveal how complex the construction of identity is. What we say about ourselves is one thing, but what we put into our bodies in another; our choices are bound by social and historical forces we seldom consider. It is far easier to assess other people’s choices. In the late eighteenth-century, one’s diet was treated as a symbol for personal qualities and morality. James Gillray, for example, regularly conflated nation, food, and identity in his political cartoons, as in ‘Temperance enjoying a Frugal Meal’ (1792) where the King’s personal stinginess was extrapolated onto the national stage. 

The wonderful Georgian Papers Project has just launched an interesting exhibition on The Eighteenth Century’s Most Prominent Mental Health Patient, George III. When we think of the health of Georgian monarchs, George III’s case is often the first thing that comes to mind–and rightly so, given how evocative it is! However, as our project will show, the royal household’s menus and food accounts can offer other insights into the daily lives of the royal household members, particularly in terms of their health, diet, cultural choices, seasonality and supply, and personal relationships.

Although sources such as the ordinary royal menus have often been overlooked, whether owing to the difficulty of interpreting them or to their ordinary domestic nature, they are–quite literally–accounts of national importance.  After all, what the king chose to eat (or not) shaped the culture and politics of the emerging British nation.

Variable Matters (Basel, 20-22 September 2019), organized by Barbara Orland and Stefanie Gänger

By Stefanie Gänger

Hosted at Basel’s beautiful Pharmacy Museum, the conference “Variable Matters” was designed to bring together historians with an interest in the movement of medicinals and knowledge about them between and across societies in the world of the ‘long’ eighteenth century. Participants talked about very different kinds of substances – vanilla, calomel, bezoars – and studied them in rather diverse contexts – anything from the Swiss Alps to the Bolivian Andes – but everyone was reflecting, in one way or another, on the subjects of medicine trade, therapeutic exchange, and epistemic brokerage.

Several speakers engaged with one or another aspect of the communication of medical knowledge about foreign or unfamiliar ‘simples’ to other cultural imaginaries, medical localities, and therapeutic traditions. Quite a few papers dealt with the acquisition, transfer and codification of remedies associated with the ‘exotic’. Emma Spary, in a public keynote lecture, discussed the introduction of vanilla to France. Vanilla, originally from the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Spain, was becoming familiar in France from the late 1600s, and the talk focused on the various issues – of translation, transport, and taste – involved in moving the plant and knowledge about it across vast expanses of space. In another paper, we heard about the growing consumption of tea in the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Low Countries from Marieke Hendriksen, who was just starting a new project on the role of subjective experience and taste in the acquisition and communication of knowledge about ‘new’, exotic materia medica. Hjalmar Fors’ talk, in turn, discussed the constraints that Europeans operated under in their encounter with ‘exotic’ plants more broadly – what they deemed worth knowing, or valuable about them, on account of those constraints – and on the botanical and (al-)chemical practices that would reduce them to a semblance of – European – order.

The delegates of the conference

Other papers discussed the acquisition, transfer and codification of remedies associated with the ancient, or artisanal. Francesco Luzzini spoke of the Italian physician and naturalist Antonio Vallisneri’s interest in ‘popular’ therapeutics, including his inquiries into the mineral remedies in use among miners, and artisans. Laurence Totelin, in turn, talked about the reception and critique of ancient antidotes like mithridatium and theriac in the eighteenth century, through treatises like William Heberden’s 1745 Antitheriaca. Heberden also figured in other talks, especially in Chris Duffin’s, which explored the contents of eighteenth-century medical chests – including Heberden’s teaching cabinet – that encompassed anything from Mesoamerican cochineal to album graecum.

Other papers engaged with the relationship between homegrown, or ‘indigenous’, medicines and novel, unfamiliar substances. Silvia Flubacher, in a paper co-authored with Simona Boscani, talked about the eighteenth-century market in ‘German bezoars’ extracted from Swiss chamois, or goats, a medical commodity that emerged in reaction to overprized exotic bezoars, as part of a discursive revaluation of the ‘local’. Other speakers engaged with ‘their’ substances’ ontological instability, the many acts of adaptation, customizing and calibration a medical substance’s journeys might entail. Irina Podgorny’s talk in particular, focusing on the example of eagle stones – hollow geode stones worn as amulets with a longstanding reputation for protecting pregnant women, or comforting women grieving the loss of a child – discussed not only shifts in the stones’ nomenclature and therapeutic indications as they travelled from Europe to Spanish America; it also studied how the very name – ‘eagle stone’ – was transferred to various objects that were concomitantly attributed analogous properties: to American fossils, and pietists collections of prayers alike.

Other speakers focused on the formats used to convey medical knowledge. Clare Griffin presented a paper on the gradual incorporation of American herbal medicines into Russian recipes over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while Matthew J. Eddy delivered a paper on a series of medical consultation letters between the prominent Edinburgh physician William Cullen and a Quaker woman, and the ensuing give-and-take of their negotiations over the proper medicines. Sabrina Minuzzi’s paper, in turn, studied the correspondence and publications – cheap pamphlets, in the majority – of Johannes Behm (c. 1640–1731), or Giovanni Beni, a physician, plant collector and broker who moved knowledge about medicinals and therapeutic practices around, especially between northern and southern Europe, but also with the East Indies, owing to his contacts with merchants, plant traders and botanists alike.

The Basel Pharmacy Museum.

In-between papers, we had the privilege of a guided tour of the Pharmacy Museum by the organizer, Barbara Orland, and the museum’s acting director, Philippe Wanner, who did their very best guiding a bunch of excited specialists through the collection (what with everyone chatting excitedly, and constantly getting side-tracked, by charred monkey skulls, preserved seahorses, or actual eagle stones!).

Tales from the Archives: Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

In my first months of co-editing duties here at The Recipes Project, one of my many delights has been the opportunity to dig back in our archives to rediscover posts I’ve loved over the years, to see them with fresh eyes. As a historian of Japan, I’ve looked forward to exploring and expanding our content on Asia, especially in global exchange. In that spirit, I bring you a classic post on European medicine in Siam (Thailand) from back in 2015, Tara Alberts’ “Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam.”

You may also notice several posts on a mini-theme of…shall we say uncomfortable recipes throughout the month of April, including historical treatments for lice and hemorrhoids already available to read (with more to come). Though I’d hardly put drinking gold at the same level of discomfort, and a fleck of gold leaf in a cocktail can still be a decadent indulgence today, I’d hate to see what a bellyful of Parisian golden medicine would do to a poor king’s stomach. Salud!


Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

By Tara Alberts

In a previous post I discussed how early modern Catholic missionaries sought to showcase the most up-to-date European medicines to impress their target audiences. This was also a key strategy used to gain access to royal courts throughout Asia.

At the court of King Narai (r. 1656-88) of Siam, for example, Europeans joined experts from China, India, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia to provide medical advice to the royal family.  Narai’s court was a cosmopolitan place: the king was keen to hear about foreign technologies and theories, and to encourage foreign trade. The French missionaries of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) were determined to take advantage of the opportunities that this offered.

Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons
King Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons

This could be easier said than done. It’s likely that the job of concocting remedies fell to René Charbonneau (1643-1727), a lay auxiliary to the MEP who had trained as a surgeon. In a 1677 he wrote a frustrated letter to a friend in Paris pleading for an easy-to-follow recipe written in French for aurum potabile. ‘The king has asked for drinkable gold’, he wrote ‘but we have not been able to manage it. […] Please write down in a letter the method of making it and purifying it for use, and the manner in which it is taken, written out in full in clear French and not in Latin and not in terms of chemistry as I am not versed in that art.’ (Archives des Missions Étrangères [AMEP] vol. 861, p. 41).

Gold-based medicines had ancient precedents in various European and Asian medical traditions. Like many putative panacea they enjoyed a renaissance in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth seventeenth centuries. [i] There were innumerable recipes available to create aurum potabile, often using gold flakes or powder alongside other expensive ingredients including precious stones, unicorn horn and spices.

Yet since the sixteenth century, many writers had been extremely skeptical about whether such cures could possibly be of use. The chemist Nicolas Lefebvre, in his Traité de la Chymie (1660), denied that they could have any effect on the human body. Mixing gold leaf into medical concoctions and powders, he asserted, was an ‘abuse in Pharmacy that the Arabs have introduced’ (p. 801). Such medicaments could not be effective as the human body contained nothing capable of breaking the gold down. Lefebvre doubted whether any efficacious cure could really be created from gold, but like other compilers of alchemical compendia, he provided a range of common recipes to purify and use gold in a more sophisticated manner.

An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop. The Wellcome Library, London
An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop, 1665

It seems that the MEP were attempting to use these sorts of alchemical methods to create a ‘true’ drinkable gold (rather than just creating a medicinal draught with added gold flakes) and that this was proving difficult. MEP missionary Charles Sevin (?-1707) blamed the equipment available in Siam. He explained in a letter to his Parisian superiors that they had brought the necessary ingredients to make the king some huile d’or potable, but the glass retorts they acquired there all shattered before they reached the necessary temperatures. (AMEP, vol. 851, p. 190).

Others confessed that their ignorance of alchemical processes was hindering progress. Charbonneau mentions that he had with him Christophe Glaser’s Traité de Chymie (1667). In this, Glaser explains several different ways of purifying gold, and offers several different methods for rendering this purified gold usable as a medical preparation through fulmination, calcination with mercury, or dissolution in the aptly named ‘royal water’ (eau régale or aqua regia – nitrohydrochloric acid). One recipe for a draught containing ‘diaphoretic gold powder’ for example, recommends that after purification the gold should be dissolved in three drams of royal water to which is added a dram of refined saltpeter. This liquid should then be used to soak small pieces of linen, which, once dried, should be burnt. The resultant ashes should be collected carefully using a hare’s foot or a feather and then used to make a pill or a draught using a small amount of wine or bouillon.

Glaser’s stated aim in writing his Traité was to set out the principles and practices of chemistry in plain language, but Charbonneau complained that he found Glaser’s text confusing. He and his confrères had had some success when they attempted to follow Glaser’s instructions with regards to purifying tin, but they were not confident enough to give a demonstration, nor, presumably, to waste their supplies of ingredients needed to make impressive remedies for the king.

There was a clear incentive to make a particularly impressive version of drinkable gold which would showcase the effectiveness of exotic European recipes, and by extension other branches of European knowledge. Yet even the most up-to-date texts explaining how to create these remedies were useless without the necessary skills and equipment to put the theory into practice. No wonder then that MEP superiors in Siam began soon to lobby for missionaries and lay helpers who were skilled in alchemy to be sent from Paris.

[i] Informative overviews of the history of pharmaceutical gold are provided here by R. Console, and here by M. Hendriksen.