Chinese American Herbal Medicine: A History of Importation and Improvisation

By Tamara Venit Shelton

“Chinese herbalists imported everything from China.” This is what I consistently heard from herbalists I interviewed when writing Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace. As far as anyone knew, when the first generation of Chinese herbalists began to immigrate to the United States in the 1850s, they imported all their medicinal ingredients from China through the port of San Francisco. By 1878, there were eighteen wholesale companies in San Francisco that serviced Chinese herb shops across the United States. In later years, herbalists could find what they needed through wholesalers in Portland, Seattle, St. Louis, and Chicago.[i]

Fig 1: Frontispiece of The Science of Oriental Medicine, 1902. Los Angeles Herbalists Tom Leung and Li Wing advertised their remedies to English-speaking patients through long and short-form print advertisements. Public Domain.

Historians of China are aware of the importance of improvisation and substitution in traditional Chinese medicine, and yet the prevalent assumption that all Chinese medicines were imported to the United States made some sense. After all, according to thousands of years of Chinese herbal lore, therapeutic efficacy relied on a highly specific process of procuring medicinal plants, animals, and minerals. The collection or cultivation of traditional medicinal ingredients in China happened only in well-defined areas, under certain seasonal, climatic, and astrological conditions.

Yet as I dug into archives, historical newspapers, memoirs, and oral histories, it became apparent that historically, practitioners of traditional Chinese herbalism in America sourced most, but not all of their supplies in China. There is ample evidence – both anecdotal and archaeological – that the Chinese in America grew and foraged for local sources of medicinal ingredients. These findings speak to the ways in which diasporic Chinese medicine responded to new conditions as well as to the resourcefulness and adaptability of its practitioners.

Fig 2: A.P. Russell, a West Virginia merchant, shows off a 1700 pound shipment of ginseng destined for China in 1928. Wild ginseng, foraged in Appalachia, was a major American export to China from the late eighteenth century until its overharvesting led to near extinction in the mid-twentieth century. Public Domain.

Looking back to the end of the nineteenth century, we see examples of Chinese and non-Chinese farmers growing medicinal herbs and roots for Chinese herb businesses. In 1898, a newspaper in Washington D.C. reported that Lee Poit, recently transplanted from California, had given up trying to compete in the crowded field of laundry and retail and was instead growing “many queer vegetables and herbs” on four acres of land that he rented near Terra Cotta Station, on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Line.[ii] Across the country, J. B. McCloskey, an American farmer who studied commercial ginseng production in Korea, opened his own farm on two acres in Oxnard and became the major supplier for Los Angeles-area Chinese physicians in 1904.[iii]

Zoological-based medicines also seem to have been locally sourced. The Chinese collected all manner of reptiles and amphibians – snakes, lizards, frogs, and toads – to supplement dried, imported varieties in America. Sometimes, doctors substituted local species that seemed similar to what would have been available in China. In Boise, Idaho, C.K. Ah Fong famously used rattlesnake (a North American reptile) in traditional Chinese tinctures to treat arthritis, and amidst other Chinese health-related artifacts from Lovelock, Nevada, archaeologist Sarah Heffner has found bobcat bones that may have been used in place of expensive, imported tiger bones.[iv]

Fig 3: Canton Harbor and Factories with Foreign Flags, 1805. European and American traders exchanged medicinal goods through this port city. Public Domain.

Substitution was just one form of improvisational thinking among Chinese herbalists in the United States. Studies of hand-written prescriptions from Chinese American apothecaries reflect a tendency to include an unusually long list of ingredients. This divergence may have been an artifact of herbalists’ swift business in mail-orders for patients unable to meet face-to-face. Patients wrote letters describing their ailment or filled out a pre-printed “symptom sheet,” and the doctor sent back a package of medicine along with a detailed instruction sheet. With an extra-long list of ingredients, Chinese American herbalists could cover a lot of bases when confronted with ambiguous descriptions of symptoms.[v]

Fig 4: Cover image of Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace. Yale University Press.

 

Chinese doctors in the United States were not so bound by tradition that they resisted adapting their formularies to their new environment. We should remember them as the innovative immigrant entrepreneurs that they were. As herbalist Li Wing Fawn explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1897: “We shall not confine ourselves exclusively to the importations from the Orient, but shall seek out also the very many valuable medicinal herbs growing in our own country [the United States].”[vi]

 

 

 

[i] Haiming Liu, “Chinese Herbalists in the United States,” in Sucheng Chan, ed. Chinese American Transnationalism: the Flow of People, Resources, and Ideas between China and America during the Exclusion Era (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), 138.

[ii] “Lee Has a Chinese Farm,” New York Times, 31 October 1898, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Times.

[iii] “Local Ginseng Culture Promises Rich Returns,” Oxnard Courier, 27 May 1904; “Queer Chinese Medicines, Los Angeles Times, 11 August 1907, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times.

[iv] Sarah Heffner, “Exploring Health-Care Practices of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America,” Historical Archaeology 49 (2015): 141.

[v] Susie Lan Cassel et al, The Chinese in America: a History from Gold Mountain to the New Millennium (Lanham MD: AltaMira Press, 2002), 178.

[vi] Li Wing Fawn and B.C. Platt, “A Step in Advance,” Los Angeles Times, 26 May 1896, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times.

 

About

Tamara Venit Shelton is a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College and author of the award-winning book, Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace

Interview with the Editors: The Cultural History of Medicine

By Elaine Leong, Lisa Smith and Laurence Totelin

The Cultural History of Medicine, a six-volume collection under the direction of Roger Cooter, was published in April 2021 by Bloomsbury. The editors of three of its volumes happen to be past or present editors of The Recipes Project: Laurence Totelin edited volume 1 (A Cultural History of Medicine in Antiquity, 500 BCE–800 CE); Elaine Leong co-edited volume 3 with Claudia Stein (A Cultural History of Medicine in the Renaissance, 1450–1650); and Lisa Smith edited volume 4 (A Cultural History of Medicine in the Age of Enlightenment, 1650–1800). Each volume follows the same structure: an introduction, followed by chapters on Environment; Food; Disease; Animals; Objects; Experiences; the Mind/Brain; and Authority. In this post, Elaine, Laurence and Lisa share their experience of participating in the project, and discuss what the reader of The Recipes Project will find of interest in the volumes.

Photo of six books standing up. The books are the six volumes of the Bloomsbury Cultural History of Medicine series.
The Cultural History of Medicine. Reproduced with the permission of Bloomsbury.

What attracted you to this project?

Laurence: I had already contributed to one of the other Cultural Histories, the Cultural History of Women with a chapter co-authored with Steven Muir on ‘Medicine and Disease’. I enjoyed the format and the potential that the volumes have for teaching. So when Roger Cooter contacted me and told me about his list of chosen topics for A Cultural History of Medicine, I could not refuse. I was delighted when I heard that Elaine and Lisa would also be editors.

Lisa: Like Laurence, I loved the idea of a series on the cultural history of medicine; it seemed the right moment for delving into the topic, as the field had slowly become more cultural – taking into consideration emotions, materiality, and more. The list of topics that Roger had chosen reflected these wider concerns, including – for example – environment. It struck me that there was a lot of scope for authors to play with these themes in interesting ways, which would appeal to students and colleagues alike.

Elaine: Like Laurence and Lisa, I felt like it was the right historiographical moment to bring together such a series. I also really welcomed the opportunity to work with my co-editor Claudia Stein and the series editor Roger Cooter. As I was working in a research institute at the time, I jumped at the chance to reflect upon pedagogy with an amazing group of scholars. The authors for the ‘Renaissance’ volume met up in 2016 and it was just wonderful to spend two days discussing the various strategies we use to teach histories of early modern medicine and health, and to collaboratively create teaching materials designed for the modern classroom.

Was your experience as an editor of The Recipes Project helpful in any way when editing your volume of A Cultural History of Medicine?

Lisa: My experience on the blog gave me a lot of experience in working with authors to make their work really readable to non-academics, which I hope will appeal (especially) to students. It also made me realise just how much I enjoy writing with others. Historians still typically work alone, but over the past decade, I’ve been increasingly involved in collaborative projects of which the Cultural History of Medicine is one. In fact, collaborative work is something that helped me through the pandemic! Co-writing with others and editing (the Recipes Project and the Enlightenment volume) encouraged me to find time to write or to talk about ideas amidst the deluge of teaching and home-schooling. There is a particular joy in writing with others to create something different than what you would do on your own. Editing, too, is deeply satisfying; I enjoy helping writers to sharpen their ideas and to pull out their voices.

Laurence: I started work on this project at the same time as on another edited collection. These were my first two larger-scale editorial projects. I am really glad I had gained experience from the Recipes Project as otherwise I would have been entirely overwhelmed. I knew how to write to authors to commission work and how to edit in – hopefully – supportive manner.

Elaine: Yes, absolutely – I echo all the points raised by Laurence and Lisa above!

Had any of your authors contributed to The Recipes Project?

Elaine: Yes, a number of authors in our volume are Recipes Project contributors. Alisha Rankin, who has written about testing and trying medicines, poison trials and panaceas for the Recipes Project wrote a wonderful chapter on ‘Experiences’, skillfully covering the experience of illness, religious experience, experience and medical practice, experience and empire and experience and commerce in a mere 8000 words. I think that it would be rather hard to find a better introduction to the topic! Secondly, Olivia Weisser, who blogged about searching for syphilis in recipe books, penned a fascinating chapter on ‘Disease’ which masterfully offers a overview of various approaches to study the history of disease; detailed case studies of how early modern men and women such as Samuel Pepys (1613–1703) viewed their sickness experiences and an introduction on analysing patient’s narratives to learn more about attitudes to sickness and disease in the past. Offering both a broad historiographical overview and rich case studies, Olivia’s chapter works particularly well for seminar discussions.

Lisa: Marieke Hendriksen wrote a wonderful chapter on objects, focusing on bone as a material. She did talk a bit about recipes, such as how to clean bones and bones in remedies, though this wasn’t her focus. Erin Spinney wrote a great chapter on environment, looking at the built environment of naval and military hospitals in the Caribbean, including the defined roles of particular bodies (according to race and gender) within them. Erin was not a Recipes Project contributor, but she did work as an administrative assistant for us for a summer!

Laurence: David Leith, who wrote the ‘Brain’ chapter had contributed a post on ‘Painting Plants in Roman Egypt‘ for the Recipes Project.

Are recipes discussed in your volume?

Laurence: Recipes are mentioned here and there in various chapters: John Wilkins’ chapter on ‘Food’; Chiara Thumiger’s chapter on ‘Animals’; Rebecca Flemming’s chapter on ‘Experiences’; and my own chapter on ‘Authority’. In addition, Ido Israelowich’s chapter on the ‘Environment’; Patty Baker’s chapter on ‘Objects; and Julie Laskaris’ chapter on ‘Disease’ discuss various ingredients and treatments. Even though recipes were already well covered, I decided that they needed to be given more prominence. So I chose to centre my introduction, which was meant to be a piece of scholarship in and of itself, on a recipe which I keep returning to in my work: Mithradates’ antidote, allegedly created by the King of Pontus in the first century BCE. I found this a very useful device to introduce all the themes in the volume. In a way, that has always been what attracts me to recipes: their structuring power.

Lisa: Beyond Marieke’s chapter, no…. But E.C. Spary’s exciting chapter on food starts with the question ‘what is a food’, as she considers how its definitions are constantly contested and shaped by structures of power. This is very much the sort of thing we’re interested in at the Recipes Project! Despite the lack of recipes, I was pleased with the focus on the dark side of the Enlightenment that emerged in my volume: the tensions between imagination – or the supernatural – and reason (Roger Cooter and Claudia Stein on mind and Angela Haas on authority), the interest in human curiosities as animal-like (Monica Mattfield), and the multiple ways in which race, class and gender were inscribed on the body. It also highlights the continued, but changing, relationship between mind and body, despite the modern tendency to assume a Cartesian split in this period (Micheline Louis-Courvoisier on experiences and Lina Minou on disease).

Elaine: Yes, of course recipes are featured and in so very many of the chapters!  In Olivia Weisser’s chapter on ‘Disease’, for example, recipe titles are used to explore how early modern men and women tended to define diseases as clusters of symptoms. Karin Eckholm’s illuminating chapter on ‘Animals’ explores the use of animal products in early modern medicines, outlining both the use of kitchen staples such as eggs, animal fats and honey and more costly animal ingredients such as spermaceti, ambergris and bezoar stones. Sandra Cavallo discusses recipe collections alongside notebooks and other medical texts in her chapter on ‘Objects’ and, somewhat predictably, recipes and recipe books are dotted throughout Alisha Rankin’s thoughtful chapter on ‘Experience’. Furthermore, centred on Felix Platter, Sachiko Kusuksawa’s chapter on ‘Authority’, discusses Platter’s endeavors in medicinal recipe collection and exchange whilst a student at Montpellier, and places of this kind of informal learning and networking with fellow students and professors within Platters general pursuit of medical knowledge and construction of medical authority. Finally, while recipes are not explicitly featured in Rebecca Earle’s chapter on food, diet and health or Natalie Kauokji’s chapter on environment, diet and natural conditions, these chapters would certainly be of interest to The Recipes Project readers!

 

‘The Best That Ever I Had’: Gifting a Medical Recipe in Early Modern Yorkshire

By Emma Marshall

On 4th September 1700, the elderly gentlewoman Alice Thornton sat down to write to Lady Henrietta Maria Yarburgh. Both women lived in the East Riding of Yorkshire, but Thornton opened her letter by saying that she was ‘soe a great a stranger to your Person’, suggesting that she had never met Lady Yarburgh. [1] She was also of a lower social status and addressed her deferentially, repeatedly ‘begging your Ladyship’s pardon’ for having ‘committed a great piece of Rudeness to be soe free with a person of your quality’.

Image credit: Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York (YM/CP/1, 2/5, 15)

What did Thornton have to say to this ‘stranger’? She explained that she had heard from friends and servants that Lady Yarburgh’s husband was suffering from ‘Paraleticks and Convolutions’. Thornton’s own deceased husband, William, had experienced similar ‘fits’ and she wanted to recommend a recipe for a ‘glister’, or suppository, which she had received from ‘the ablest Physsions’ and described as ‘the best that ever I had to preserve the life of my dere husband’. Thornton included this recipe as a separate insert so ‘that it may be more convenient to Read’, perhaps imagining that Lady Yarburgh would paste it into a book or circulate it among her own acquaintances, both common practices. Thornton also asked Lady Yarburgh to ‘do me the favoure to send me the Paper of Receipts backe againe for I am now very Aged; & cannot see to write the same and have great occasions for it’. These notes on the materiality of medical recipes shed light on their circulation, use and reuse. As proof that the glister was popular and effective on a wide scale, Thornton described using it to ‘cure many more in the same distemper’ as her husband, and clearly copying the recipe out on a regular basis was physically strenuous. However, hinting at its status as a treasured possession also emphasised her respect for Lady Yarburgh and encouraged trust between the two women. Unfortunately, the recipe has been separated from the letter and lost, perhaps suggesting that Lady Yarburgh did indeed return it to Thornton, or pass it on to friends. 

Aware that she was unknown to Lady Yarburgh, Thornton used the recipe’s accompanying letter to recommend her own expertise and character. She did so through narrative episodes, recounting her husband’s fits and her responses in detail. For example, William appeared as if he ‘had bin dead & without breathing or mocion or life 2 daies & 2 nights’ during his first attack, which she remedied with the glister. Emphasising the severity of his illness also stressed the efficacy of her recipe. This was reiterated by her account of William’s death, which she blamed on his disregard of her ‘extreame earnest’ pleas for him to ‘take yt order as usuall’. Thornton also expressed her own emotional reaction to William’s illness through conventional feminine behaviour, stating that she ‘cannot but sympathise with Your Ladyship having had so many frights & tears and watching & excessive sorrow in every fitt my dere husband had’. The link between physical gestures and emotion in sickchamber narratives has been explored by Hannah Newton, and in this letter they were used to communicate shared experience and feeling between writer and recipient. [2] Thornton’s desire to gift the recipe to Lady Yarburgh was explained in similarly personal terms: ‘haveing bin my selfe vissited with ye like calamity I am obliged in Charity to assist others […] in distress.’ She also added that God’s blessing on the medicine and ‘Christian patience’ were needed for positive results. Thornton used the letter to perform her identity as a skilled medical practitioner, loving wife and pious Christian, thus approaching Lady Yarburgh as a virtuous and empathetic friend. 

Despite the loss of the recipe itself, the letter sent alongside it shows how written medical instructions interacted with other forms of inter-household paperwork in early modern England, as described by Katherine Allen. Like her famous autobiography, Thornton’s recommended recipe was bound up with personal memory and emotional experience, a topic discussed by Montserrat Cabré amongst others, but it was also socio-politically significant. Thornton was 74 years old in 1700 and had suffered poverty since her husband’s death. In this context, her medical gift was a strategy to cross social boundaries and form an alliance with a potential patroness. As Elaine Leong notes, reciprocity was key to informal medical exchanges and Thornton could expect material, financial or social favours if the recipe was well received. [3] Of course, asserting medical authority to an unknown social superior could disrupt customary power dynamics, which Thornton navigated with care. She emphasised the recipe’s reliability through storytelling, describing her extensive and successful experiences of its use. However, she also had to prove her personal integrity if she was to be trusted by Lady Yarburgh. Thornton consequently used accounts of the remedy to present herself as a humble and compassionate gentlewoman, in line with traditional gender roles. The gifting of recipes was an important token of friendship and knowledge exchange, but it could also be used to construct self-identity and negotiate relationships rooted in social hierarchy, power and obligation.


Notes

[1] Borthwick Institute for Archives (University of York) YM/CP/1, 2/5, 15.

[2] Hannah Newton, Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 119-21.

[3] Elaine Leong, Recipes and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science and the Household in Early Modern England (London: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 37-8, 174.

Notes

[1] Borthwick Institute for Archives (University of York) YM/CP/1, 2/5, 15.

[2] Hannah Newton, Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 119-21.

[3] Elaine Leong, Recipes and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science and the Household in Early Modern England (London: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 37-8, 174.

The Curing Chocolate of Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma of 1631

By R.A. Kashanipour

 
The Indies, personified as a maiden, give the gift of chocolate to the Atlantic world, personified as Poseidon. Front piece to Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma’s, Chocolata Inda, Opusculum de qualitate & naturâ de Chocolatæ (Nuremberg, 1644). Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.
“The number of people who drink chocolate is vast,” wrote the seventeenth century Spaniard, Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, “not only in the Indies, where the beverage originated, but also in Spain, Italy and Flanders, and particularly in the royal court.”  In the early modern world, the consumption of chocolate was ubiquitous across the Americas (as noted here).  According to Colmenero de Ledesma, a physician and surgeon who traversed the Atlantic to explore colonial Spanish medical practices and remedies, chocolate represented the great gift of the Indies (see image above).  

In Colmenero de Ledesma’s 1631 account titled Curioso tratado de naturaleza y calidad del chocolate , which represented the first full-length printed account dedicated to chocolate, the surgeon celebrated the beverage and confectionery for its healthy and healing qualities. “My desire,” he noted in the opening of the work, “is for the benefit and pleasure of the public, to describe the variety of uses and mixtures so that each may choose what suits their ailments.” Borrowing from indigenous traditions in Mesoamerica, chocolate fit a variety of uses. It could be everything from a ritual beverage to a healing elixir to an everyday imbibement.

 
Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma’s Curioso tratado de la naturalez y calidad del Chocolate (Madrid, 1631). Image courtesy of the the Bibloteca Nacional de España.

By the end of the seventeenth century, chocolate was popular across the Atlantic, particularly in the Europe’s imperial capitals and Atlantic port cities.  However, in spite of its wide-spread use at the everyday level, its consumption was the subject of confusion and consternation by skeptical physicians and the learned classes. Colmnero de Ledesma noted that many Europeans of the era debated its qualities and application.  “Some people say that it obstructs, others that it makes one fat. Some say that it soothes the stomach, while others that it heats and burns. And some say that they drink it every hour, even in the long-days of summer.  I stand to defend this confection … against those that may suggest that this beverage is not good and healthy.”

Colmenero de Ledesma suggested that the consumption of chocolate was both salubrious and satiating.  In the Curioso tratado, he offered a four-part discourse on the qualities of the confection, noting its universal humoral attributes.  “Chocolate, as the Indians call it,” he wrote, managed to contain the four critical elements of heat, humidity, cold, and dryness.  It could be oily and earthy, thick and airy, moist and dry, soft and hard. As a medicament, cacao, the “principal basis” of chocolate, served as an astringent and purgative.

The key to the varied uses of the confection, however, existed in the art of its preparation. By properly incorporating a wide variety of herbs and spices from the New World, chocolate could enliven appetites, elevate moods, and conserve one’s health.  Poorly tempered concoctions could cause illness. Hinting at the Spanish disdain for the subjugated native populations of the colonies, he suggested that the chocolate could also release debilitating qualities, writing that “[t]hose that mix maize, or paniço, in Chocolate produce harmfully release melancholy humors.” Nevertheless, the artful combination of elements could produce a healthy and restorative beverage. 

Colmenero de Ledesma’s Recipe for Chocolate

To every one hundred Cacao beans, mix two large chiles of the type that are called Cilparlagua in the Indies (or you may use the broadest and least spicy chile found in Spain). Add in one handful of anise seeds along with the leaves of the herb called Vincaxtlidos and the other called Mecasuchil [mecaxóchitl], if the stomach is tight. Or, as we do in Spain, mix in the six flowers of the Roses of Alexandria, which are beat into a power.  Add one pod of the Vanilla of Campeche, two sticks of cinnamon, a dozen almonds and hazelnuts, and a pound and half of sugar. Add in enough achiote to give it color. 

To prepare the beverage, Colmenero de Ledesma suggested that the ingredients be ground on a metate, explicitly reserved for grinding cacao. All ingredients, save the achiote, were to be dried and ground individually into a powder. Begin, he directed, by grinding the cinnamon, then the chile with the anise, then moving to the others.  Next carefully mix each pulverized ingredient into the cacao a little at a time. Finally, add the achiote.  Over a low fire, the pulverized mixture is to be seared and dried into a paste, which was to be spooned onto paper or a plantain leaf. The cooled paste would form a tablet that could subsequently be dissolved with water and sugar.

Consumed cold or warm, Colmenero de Ledesma’s recipe for chocolate would invariably have something novel to the seventeenth century palates on both sides of the Atlantic. In the Americas, chocolate was traditionally consumed as a frothy, spicy beverage, free of the sweetness of modern cocoa. Colmenero de Ledesma’s recipe, however, combined herbs and spices of the New World. It is noteworthy that the university-trained Spanish surgeon appropriated and Hispanized indigenous terms, including cilparlagua and mecasuchil, and established them as key colonized aspects of the concoction.  Moreover, the addition of sugar fundamentally redefined the experience of the beverage.  Rather than taking on the earthy and bitter qualities of the cacao, the sugar would have lent an overwhelming sweetness to the beverage.  

When produced with the right art and process, Colmenero de Ledesma suggested that his recipe for chocolate could be remedial, protective, and healthy. “Through my experience in the Indes” he declared, “when visiting a sick person in the heat, I was persuaded to take a draft of chocolate, which quenched my thirst. And, in the morning, if I had fasted, it warmed and comforted my stomach.” Within a decade, Colmenero de Ledesma’s curious treatment of chocolate would be translated and published in England, France, Germany, and Italy. Chocolate, to echo his own conclusion, was “no small matter, to have pleased all.”