Revisiting He Bian’s Fetch Me at Pearl Nest Street: Rhubarb Pills as Panacea in Qing China

Today we revisit He Bian’s fascinating post from 2018. Here, He tells us about the global trade in Chinese rhubarb (dahuang) roots, panaceas and notions of difference in premodern theories of the body. Fascinated by this post and want to learn more about drugs in early modern China? You’re in luck as He’s monograph Know your Remedies: Pharmacy and Cultures in Early Modern China is now out with Princeton University Press. Have you ordered your copy? Elaine Leong

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.

Revisiting Katherine Allen’s Tobacco Smoke Enemas in Eighteenth-Century Domestic Medicine

Editor’s note: Today, we revisit a post from 2013 on the myriad and curious uses of tobacco in early modern England.  European imperialism turned the New World domesticate used primarily in ritual into a global commodity of leisure and health.  As Katherine Allen notes in this post, eighteenth century healers also employed tobacco as a remedy for a range of ailments, from rheumatoid pains to the plague.  Tobacco smoke, administered through a pipe called a glister, was used to treat intestinal inflammation and hernias, even in home recipes. This tends to give new meaning to ‘smoke ’em if you got ’em,’ I say.  R.A. Kashanipour

By Katherine Allen

Over the holiday I was working on a transcription of an eighteenth-century recipe book and came across an initially humorous recipe for treating ‘the winde & Collick’ (Wellcome, WMS 3500) which goes as follows:

And so is tobacco given in A pipe [when] it is well Lighted the small end to be oyled and put up into ye fundament and some body put the great end into their Mouth and blow the smoake up into the body this never fails to give ease to the winde collick you may put A small Glister pipe into the body and put the small end of the pipe Tobacco in the End of ye Glister pipe this way will Convey the Smoak into ye body very well. (fol. 87r.)

This surprising description of getting a companion’s assistance in administering the remedy has inspired me to write this post on the history of the familiar phrase ‘to blow smoke up one’s arse [ass]’ and the possible use of tobacco glisters in eighteenth-century domestic medicine.

Tobacco Plant. Image Credit:

Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) is a type of herb in the night shade family Solanaceae. It was smoked by indigenous peoples in the Americas as far back as 1000BC, but gained popularity in Europe and in global markets through trade in the sixteenth century. By the eighteenth century, tobacco was a popular luxury good in England and was increasingly consumed more for pleasure than medicinal treatment.

But how was tobacco used as medicine in the early modern era? Discussing the humoral and astrological qualities of tobacco, Nicholas Culpeper stated in an eighteenth-century version of his herbal that it was a hot and dry herb under the dominion of Mars. Tobacco was useful as an infusion for vomits, rheumatic pain, and piles. As a distilled oil, it was used for aching teeth however, ‘the distilled oil is of a poisonous nature; a drop of it taken inwardly will destroy a cat’. Culpeper also praised tobacco as an expectorant, a digestive aid, and a pesticide for vermin and for preventing plague.[1]

Those who are familiar with recipe collections will have surely come across at least one recipe using tobacco, and the most common recipe seems to have been a tobacco ointment. The Tyrrell Family collection has one such recipe which called for bruised tobacco leaved infused in red wine and then boiled in hog grease along with tobacco juice and beeswax.[2] Tobacco has astringent qualities and acts as a coagulant, and would have been an effective ingredient in salves for treating wounds. Another recipe stated that the tobacco salve ‘is an excellent Mundifier [cleanser] and healer of old sores, and Ulcers, if the sores be first washed with a little good brandy, which ought to be done, till the sores look fresh, which it will do in 3 or 4 dayes if this course be taken.’[3]

Wellcome, WMS 7822, fol. 11r. Image Credit: Wellcome Library

But, when and how did tobacco smoke enemas come into use and how did this treatment come to be in a household book of remedies? The phrase ‘to blow smoke up one’s arse’ means to get a rise or reaction out of someone, sometimes by giving them insincere compliments for attention. This phrase originates from the practice of using smoke enemas to resuscitate near-drowned victims via stimulation and it was first practiced by indigenous groups in North America.[4]

During the eighteenth century, tobacco smoke enemas were used by humane societies across Europe, including the Royal Humane Society in London, to resuscitate victims.[5] Culpeper included the tobacco enema under treatment advice for the inflammation of the intestines induced by colic or hernia and suggested that it ‘is of singular efficacy in obstinate stoppages of the bowels, for destroying those small worms called ascarids [roundworms], and for the recovery of persons apparently drowned.’[6] Physician Richard Mead was a proponent of the tobacco glister, using it to treat iatrogenic drowning caused by immersion therapy for hydrophobia and mania, and later Thomas Sydenham wrote a treatise on its use in bowel obstructions.[7] The use of this treatment declined in the early nineteenth century when it was affirmed that the nicotine found in tobacco can stop blood circulation if there is too much in the body, as in the case of an enema.[8] By the mid-nineteenth century the enemas were not used by the medical faculty.

Tobacco Pipe Enema circa 1773. Image Credit:

There is no author associated with the tobacco glister recipe found in MS 3500, but it is likely that this information was communicated to the compiler by a physician. This particular collection is dated 1688-1727 and was owned by a Mrs. Meade (and others), but it does not appear that she was related to Dr. Richard Mead. Several of the recipes are however directly attributed to Dr. Richard Lower for treating the young Nathaniel Meade, one of which is a purge dated the 1st of December, 1688.  There is also one recipe attributed to Dr. Needham on the page before the tobacco glister recipe.

Considering that tobacco enemas were only in vogue from the mid-eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century, it is unusual to find this medical advice in a domestic collection, let alone one dated from the early eighteenth century. As it is improbable that an eighteenth-century household would have had its own tobacco pipe for administering a glister for bowel complaints, I suspect that this recipe is an example of a physician’s remedies being copied into a domestic collection. More importantly, this is an example of how recipe books were continually evolving and being updated alongside innovations in the medical faculty. What started as a chuckle over an amusing recipe has led me to explore the history of this peculiar remedy from its use by the medical faculty to its indigenous origins; giving a whole new meaning for me to the phrase ‘blow smoke up one’s ass’.


[1] Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Family Physician; or Medical Herbal Enlarged. Vol. 2 (London, 1782). p. 134.

[2] Wellcome, WMS 7822. Anon [Tyrrell], ‘Collection of Medical and Cookery Receipts, 17thC-18thC’, fol. 11r.

[3] Wellcome, WMS 1796. Anon, ‘Collection of Cookery and Medical Receipts, c. 1685-c.1725’, fol. 64r.

[4] Raymond Hurt et al., The History of Cardiothoracic Surgery from Early Times (London: Parthenon, 1996). p. 120.

[5] Lawrence Ghislaine, ‘Tools of the Trade, Tobacco Smoke Enemas’ The Lancet vol. 359 issue. 9315 (April 2002): 1442.

[6] Culpeper, p. 281.

[7] Thomas Sydenham, ‘Schedula Monitoria, or an Essay on the Rise of a New Fever’ in Benjamin Rush, The works of Thomas Sydenham, M.D., on acute and chronic diseases: with their histories and modes of cure (Philadelphia: B & T Kite, 1809). p. 383.

[8] Ghislaine, 1442.

Revisiting Diana Luft’s Treating the Stone in Sixteenth-Century Wales

Today we revisit a post originally published in 2017 by Diana Luft on a sixteenth-century recipe against the stone ascribed to a certain Vicar of Gwenddwr, Wales. The recipe is in Welsh, but includes names of some ingredients in English, perhaps indicating an English original. I hope you will enjoy rediscovering this post about a beautiful part of Wales. Laurence Totelin

By Diana Luft

Image of the village of Gwenddwr. Permission granted by the owner of the website Radnorshire Images (John Crellin).
Image of the village of Gwenddwr. Permission granted by the owner of the website Radnorshire Images (John Crellin).

National Library of Wales MS. Peniarth 182 is a miscellany in the hand of Huw Pennant, a poet who lived and worked in Gwynedd and then Carmarthenshire at the turn of the sixteenth century.[1] The manuscript has the look of a personal collection, and it was written over a period of five years, from 1509 until the scribe’s death in 1514. It contains pedigrees, chronicles, religious texts, and texts of a medical nature, including a list of the dangerous days of the year, a short herbal based on Macer Floridus, and two collections of medical recipes. These collections are united by their subject: they all treat the condition tostedd or bladder stone. The first collection has been gleaned from a medieval source; its five recipes can be traced to the four earliest medical manuscripts in Welsh. The second is a mix of recipes that can be traced to fourteenth- and fifteenth-century sources, with the addition of a unique remedy ascribed to an unnamed Vicar of Gwenddwr in Breconshire.

Writing in 1801, Theophilus Jones described the village of Gwenddwr as ‘a vile assortment of huts’, adding that, ‘the best fabric in it is the alehouse’.[2] It may be that the village had fallen on hard times by the nineteenth century, as it seems that its sixteenth-century vicar was recommending a rather complicated, and expensive, course of treatment for bladder stones. Here is the recipe in full:

Rhag y tostedd, medd Bickar Gwenddwr

Kymer ddyrnaid o saets, a’r gymaint arall o’r persli gwraidd ag oll, a’r gymaint arall o’r alisander, a’r gymaint arall o’r ‘selver’ (yr hwn a elwir kynga’r koed), a’r gymaint arall o’r ‘mors off maed lik’ (hynny ydyw, barfav kennin o’r rai ni fflannwyd yn y blaen), a xxxiii o rawn yr eiddaw, a dyrnaid o’r ‘betoni’ (yr rain a elwir kribe sanffred). Golch yn lan hwynt a phwnia mewn mortar kyn vaned a’r grinsaws. Yn ol hyny, bwrw hwynt mewn llestyr glan olchiad, a bwrw arnvn yno dri chwart o hengwrw kadarn, a thri chwart eraill o Rwmnai da. Kymered wraig a dwylaw glan olchiad, a gwasged hwynt hyd pan el ffrwyth y llysiav yn y ddiod. Oddyno kymrud lliain glan a’i hidlo ef yn dda, oddyno bwrw ymaith y soeg, oddyno brew y ddiod hyd pan el chwart o’r chwech chwart dan y brew. Oddyno yskimma ef yn lan, ag oddyno tyn y ddiod oddiar y tan, a bwrw ar y ddiod geinhiagwerth o’r graynys, a dimewerth o’r coleandur,  keinhiagwerth o bowdwr syngir, dimewerth o bowdwr galingall, gwerth tair keinioc o saffrwm, dimewerth o bowdwr licorys. Dod y ddiod ar y tan a gad i verwi ias vechan i gymryd ffrwyth y llysiav. Oddyno tyn i’r llawr, a phan oero ef ddigon, dyro dy ddiod mewn llestyr pridd. Ystopia ef yn dda a lliain glan, a gad yno i sefyll dridiav a theirnos. Yn ol hynny, hidler y ddiod drwy liain glan a rodder i’r glaf y’w yfed yn oer y bore a’r nos, yngwres y gwaed. Arvered o hyn, a iach vydd drwy nerth Duw. Poed gwir Amen

For the stone, says the Vicar of Gwenddwr

Take a handful of sage and the same amount again of parsley, roots and all, and the same amount again of alexanders and the same amount again of ‘cleavers’ (which are called wood burdock), and the same amount again of ‘moss of leek cuttings’ (that is, the beards of leeks which have not been planted before),[1] and thirty-three ivy seeds, and a handful of ‘betony’ (which are called St. Brigid’s combs). Wash them clean and pound them in a mortar as fine as green sauce. After that, put them into a newly-washed vessel and add three quarts of strong old beer, and three more quarts of good Rumney wine. Let a woman with newly-washed hands be brought, and let her press them until the essence of the herbs goes into the liquid. Take a clean linen cloth and strain it well, and throw away the residue, then boil the liquid until one of the six quarts boils away. Skim it clean, remove the liquid from the heat, and add a penny’s-worth of grains of paradise, a halfpenny’s-worth of coriander, a penny’s-worth of ginger powder, a halfpenny’s-worth of galangal powder, three penny’s-worth of saffron, and a halfpenny’s-worth of liquorice powder. Put the liquid on the heat and let it boil for a little while to take the essence of the herbs. Then put it aside, and when it cools enough, put the liquid into an earthenware vessel. Stop it up well with a clean linen cloth and leave it to stand three days and three nights. After that, let the liquid be strained through a clean linen cloth and let it be given to the sick person to drink cold in the morning and at body temperature at night. Let him use this and he will be healed through the strength of God, Amen.

While Pennant’s text is in Welsh, the vicar’s original recipe was likely in English. Most of the ingredients are given in Welsh, but three are in English with Welsh explanations (cleavers, leek grass, and betony). It is not uncommon for Welsh recipes to use English borrowings, especially for foreign or exotic ingredients. The medieval recipe collections contain ingredients such as alym (alum), arment (arnament), atrwm (atrament), brwnston (sulphur), cod (cobbler’s wax), kopros (copperas), and opium. But the English words in this recipe do not refer to foreign or exotic ingredients, rather they indicate the common native herbs. The names of the imported ingredients are borrowings, but they are very old borrowings which have already been incorporated into Welsh. For example, the form coleandur (coriander) appears in Welsh in the earliest herbal glossary, while saffrwm (saffron), licorys (liquorice), and syngir (ginger) are found in the fourteenth-century recipe collections. Thus, while the imported ingredients in this recipe are borrowings, it is the explanations of the common herbs which indicate an English source.

Urine wheel from a fifteenth-century Welsh medical manuscript, NLW 3026 (Mostyn 88), a medical miscellany in the hand of the prolific scribe and poet Gutun Owain. Permission granted by National Library of Wales.
Urine wheel from a fifteenth-century Welsh medical manuscript, NLW 3026 (Mostyn 88), a medical miscellany in the hand of the prolific scribe and poet Gutun Owain. Permission granted by National Library of Wales.

Pennant does not say how he has come by this recipe, whether he has copied it from a book, received it from a friend or neighbour, or perhaps been in correspondence with the vicar himself.  This is the last remedy in this manuscript, all of which treat a common and very painful condition. The collections of remedies in this manuscript, written over a period of years, all treating the same condition, beginning with old remedies taken from manuscripts and ending with what may be the result of correspondence with a contemporary, seems to tell a tale of increasing desperation in the face of an intractable illness. It is impossible to say whether Huw Pennant suffered from bladder stones himself, but the medical texts he chose to include in his collection would seem to suggest that he did. They would also seem to suggest that his interest in these remedies was not academic, but rather practical, that is, that he intended to use them, and may have done so. The cause of Pennant’s death is not recorded. I can only hope that, whatever it was, he received some relief from the ailment that seems to have plagued him for so long.

[1]      This seems to be a reference to the propagation of leeks by removing the seed from the seed head and allowing the head to develop small clones of the parent plant upon it (leek grass), which can then be planted out. I have interpreted mors as representing English ‘moss’, in the sense of a plant resembling moss (OED ‘moss, n.1’ II.4) or perhaps ‘hairiness’ (MED ‘mos’ 1(a)), and maed as representing English ‘math’ that is, a cutting or a mowing, from Anglo-Saxon mæð (OED ‘math, n.1’) and thus mos off maed lik as a cutting of leek, which results in the production of leek grass which is hairy or moss-like in appearance.

[1]      On Huw Pennant see Cartwright, J. 2016. The Middle Welsh Life of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins. In Cartwright, J. ed. The Cult of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins. Cardiff: UWP, pp. 163–86.

[2]      Jones, T. 1809. The History of the County of Brecknock. Vol. 2 of 2. Brecknock: George North, p. 296. You can judge for yourself, from the photograph of the village taken by John Crellin in 2011 for his Radnor Images website ( and used with his kind permission here, whether Jones’s opinion holds true today!


Tales from the Archives — A Plant for the End of the World

As I sift through materials for my own research on manuals and strategies for famine prevention, I’ve had to spend a lot of time thinking about plants. The near-obsession with the healing properties of plants pervades premodern East Asia, not just in the pharmacological sense but in nourishing one’s moral character.

When recording a book of recipes to stave off starvation, at least in the Japanese case, authors resorted to ingredients at the edge of edibility: fibrous stalks and wild roots, pulped tree bark, the scum from the bottom of your neighbor’s used rice pot. Yet they were equally concerned with spiritual upkeep as they were with bodily preservation.


So, I went digging through our own archives here at The Recipes Project and, to my great delight, discovered Michael Stanley-Baker’s contribution on botanicals for sustenance and salvation in premodern China: “A Plant for the End of the World.” I hope it sates your appetite for pondering plants too, or at least whets it.

By Michael Stanley-Baker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, Lady Wang lays out the highest levels of practice: oration of the Great Cavern Scripture (Dadong zhenjing 大洞真經), and the other supreme texts of the tradition. These install supreme deities throughout the body, grant immortality and ascension to the highest layers of heaven. They will cause the 5 organs to flourish and thrive and guard and close the mysterious portal [between the eyes]. Visualize the nine perfected [beings] within the brain and the three qi will transport fluids [through the body] and irrigate the elixir field.3

Only then, Lady Wang begins to discuss plants:

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

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

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

This is not just a recipe for making a drug, it is a recipe for life, for salvation. Three recipes using atractylodes appear elsewhere in the Declarations as separate documents. They each describe technical details of boiling, sieving and pulping the root, frying it with wine or mixing it with honey, jujubes or pine nuts.  Other passages in Tao’s collection show that the Xu family were taking atractylodes for different reasons: Xu Mi 許謐 the father, was taking it for his semi-paralysed arm. the youngest of his three sons, Xu Hui 許翽 was taking it to prepare his digestive system for austere ascetic diets where he would give up food entirely to live on herbs or just qi. But why articulate atractylodes into this larger program?  Giving it this special meaning bound up the Xus with the sacredness of the mountains on which it grew. During the cataclysm the Mao mountains were to be the site where the Lord of the Dao from on High would descend to save the worthy. The Xus chances of being saved depended on two kinds of merit.  Firstly, the merit gained from persevering in their spiritual practices and achieving bio-spiritual transformation .  However, their access to these practices was due to the merits of their ancestor, Xu Ah, who compassionately dispensed drugs and food in the region during epidemic and famine.  The salvific qualities of Atractylodes brought these two together, binding their elite heritage, and their spiritual practice, their past and their future, into a direct relationship with the land, the mountains and the local ecology of medicinal herbs. The very mountain where the Xus were destined to be saved was the same site Tao Hongjing had chosen for his own editorial efforts, both of the Declarations, and the Pharmacopoeia.  

What of the Lady of Purple Tenuity’s knowledge of actractyldoes travelled into Tao’s Pharmacopoeia, written for the emperor, and intended for exoteric transmission outside? The eschatology, the other practices, the Xus disappear in that work. The pharmacopoeic format is regular and predictable, each entry proceeding with the drug’s name, flavours, temperature, toxicity, major functions and so on. Atractylodes is reported useful here for blockage syndrome in the limbs, which was Xu Mi’s condition, and for digestive problems, which correlates to Xu Lian’s fasting. Furthermore, Tao’s annotations report that “Transcendent Scriptures say” that it can suppress epidemic poxes and disperse evil qi, codewords for ghostly diseases, echoing the claims of the Discourse. Do these separate collections indicate broader cultural distinctions between religion and medicine, between recipes and pharmacopoeias, between local and centralized, or esoteric and exoteric knowledge?

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

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

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

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