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, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/cvty3qqk
Figure 1. Chinese or Turkish rhubarb (Rheum palmatum): flowering and fruiting stem with leaf. Coloured zincograph after M. A. Burnett, c. 1842. Credit: Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/cvty3qqk

Yet is it really true that pharmacological visions in early modern China and Europe were so different that they could not possibly reach a consensus over rhubarb’s properties ? Classical Chinese pharmaceutical literature listed rhubarb as a drug with a “very cold” nature, and generations of physicians were taught not to use the cold drug in curing cold-natured diseases. This suggested that Russians (and other Westerners, as seen in this post on rhubarb in early modern England) had different bodies than the Qing Chinese, as they depended on rhubarb as an all-round cure. Pharmacological theories, in other words, engendered a vision of difference that seemed insurmountable.

During my recent reading of Qing medical recipe books, however, I discovered that rhubarb in fact functioned as nothing short of a panacea for Qing Chinese. This is evident in the text Bianyong liangfang (Excellent Recipes for Expedient Use), which appeared in the Jiaqing reign (1796-1820). Compact (only 2-juan in length) and very nicely printed (with carved woodblocks), it arranges pills, powders, tinctures, and decoctions by symptom. The book has about 120 pages, and most recipes are merely a few lines in length. What surprised me was that one very long recipe at the end of the text takes up the entirety of 13 pages. The remedy in question, mi shou Qingning wan (Secretly transmitted pill of purity and tranquility), calls for “several dozen pounds” of good quality rhubarb roots as the principal ingredient. Rubbed clean and steeped in rice water, the rhubarb was sliced, sun-dried, processed with “ash-less good rice liquor” for three days, and then put through a lengthy, elaborate protocol of fifteen rounds of steaming. Each steam involved a different set of herbs. Finally, makers took the resultant rhubarb paste, mixed it with “yellow ox milk” (using cooked honey as substitute if there was no milk), boy’s urine, ginger juice, and rolled it into tiny pills. The recipe listed hundreds of common illnesses that could be treated with this pill, ranging from headache and hemorrhage to gynecological disorders.

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

I have tried to look up this recipe in earlier Chinese medical texts, and my preliminary findings suggest that it probably came into existence no earlier than the seventeenth century. It became wildly popular in the eighteenth century, and recipe books serve as evidence of its widespread consumption. On the last page of Bianyong liangfang (Figure 2), the compiler, Luo Benli, announced that he had a batch of rhubarb pills prepared during his tenure in Guizhou – a southwestern province of China – and that, in case of emergency, readers could “call upon my house on Pearl Nest Street” and look for the “residence of Mr. Luo of the Ministry of Defense (bingbu Luo zhai).” Pearl Nest Street (zhuchaojie), a neighborhood in Qing Beijing not far from the Forbidden City, featured prime real estate. As a military official who had served in the frontier provinces, Luo was less bound by medical norms of the day and possessed the financial and political capital to manufacture elaborate pills like these. Was there, in other words, a sub-culture of health and medication championed by military elites such as Luo, which stood distinct from classical prescriptions?

One last word about this recipe that hints at a hidden connection between different cultural realms in early modern China: Sun Xingyan (1753-1818), a prominent scholar who combed through medieval sources for fragments of ancient texts, published the same recipe for Pill of Purity and Tranquility in his scholarly series. The inclusion of this Qing text alongside ancient monographs so bewildered modern bibliographers that they mistakenly attributed the recipe’s author to a seventh-century figure. In fact, Sun Xingyan made it clear that it was a contemporary remedy and provided an elaborate scholarly argument to defend rhubarb’s all-around efficacy to cure both hot and cold-natured illnesses. He also suggested that “vulgar physicians” despised the pill because if everyone had access to this remedy then their businesses would be lost. Therefore it does appear that, when it comes to rhubarb, Qing Chinese scholars and military commanders were no less enthusiastic than what they imagined about the Russians.

[1] I recommend this excellent essay by Chang Che-Chia (translated by Penelope Barrett) for more on this curious episode.

‘Used With Constant Success’: Animal Ingredients in Eighteenth-Century Remedies, and their Success in the Beauty Industry

It’s Halloween, so it’s fitting that I’m writing about slimes and sticky oozes, though somewhat misleading. This post considers three common animal-derived medicinal ingredients found in eighteenth-century recipes. Earlier this week, Lisa Smith looked at a relatively unusual ingredient: puppies. Today’s ingredients, however–snails, honey, and asses’ milk–were staples in domestic medicine.

Although my research is on eighteenth-century domestic medicine, I also have a personal blog on lifestyle, baking, and beauty. Here we’ll explore the historical uses of these ingredients, and you can visit my blog to find out why these same ingredients are celebrities of the beauty community – I do my best to put their efficacy to the test!

One of my favourite pastimes is experimenting with skincare and makeup, and it’s intriguing that ingredients once treasured for their medicinal and beautifying properties have had resurgence in the beauty industry. A historical perspective certainly makes me think about modern cosmetics differently, especially in relation to their medicinal properties and efficacy claims.

Jennifer Sherman Roberts has written on the efficacy of an early modern pimple remedy, and the work of Michelle DiMeo, Rebecca Laroche, and Edith Snook investigate the use of animals in medicinal recipes, and cosmetic practices in early modern England[1].  

Snails:

The garden snail was one of the most used animal ingredients in eighteenth-century remedies. In my doctoral research, where I examined 5,000 recipes from 27 eighteenth-century manuscripts, I found 104 references to snails (4% of all animal ingredients).

R. Bradley, A philosophical account of the works of nature... Credit: Wellcome Library, London. 

The snail was claimed to be ‘one of the cleanest feeders in the world’,[2] and seventeenth-century physician and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper noted that ‘the reason why they cure a consumption is this; Man being made of the slime of the earth, the slimy substance recovers him when he is wasted’.[3]

In today’s cosmetic industry, snail gel is used as a moisturiser and skin brightener (see my blog for details), but the most common use of snails in eighteenth-century recipes was in the form of a distilled water. This was prevalent remedy for respiratory conditions like consumption.

A mid-eighteenth-century recipe book belonging to the Arscott family from Tetcott, Devon has two consecutive snail water recipes. The first, titled ‘for a Consumption’, used a peck of grey snails wiped clean and distilled in both asses’ milk and red cow’s milk alongside dates, raisins, liquorish, and aniseed. A second recipe, attributed to Lady Robert Russell, noted its efficacy by claiming that she had ‘experienced good in Cough, Heatick, Heals a Sharpness in the Blood’. Lady Russell received this recipe from Dr Francis Willis (famous for treating the madness of George III).[4]

See Jennifer Sherman Robert’s post on snail waters and spa treatments.

Honey:

Honey was the most frequently cited animal-derived ingredient in my research. It was used for plasters, poultices, and ointments, and was a sweetener. Honey was used for treating swelling, cancers, ulcers, and eye complaints. ‘A poultis for a Swelling by My Aunt Dorothy Pates’, for example, used honey as a binding agent.[5] Another recipe, said to be ‘approved by the best doctars [sic]’ used a clove of garlic saturated in fine English honey and put in the ear for eight days to cure pain and restore hearing.[6]   

Hair Water from the Duchess of Marlborough using honey. Kent History Centre, U1590/C43/2, f. 75r.

Honey has long been valued for its restorative properties, and today it’s a ubiquitous ingredient in hair conditioners and skincare. It also featured in eighteenth-century hair treatments. The Duchess of Marlborough was claimed to have ‘preserved her hair good to her death’ by using a hair water created from two pounds of honey distilled with rosemary flowers and wire of the vine [grape stems?]. This hair wash was said to thicken and ‘give it a gloss’.[7] On my blog, you can see how a similar hair wash using rosemary and honey turned out!

Asses’ Milk:

Another animal-derived ingredient that has been used since ancient times is asses’ milk. It was used in the eighteenth century to treat respiratory ailments. Lisa Smith has also written about the medical uses of asses’ milk on The Sloane Letters Project.

Returning to the Arscott Family, Mrs Arscott (Thomasine) suffered from breast cancer and her husband John recorded several cancer treatments in their collection. It’s unclear from the records exactly what kind of cancer she had, but it’s evident she was in pain. Mrs Arscott tried different remedies prescribed from physicians, ranging from cardus Benedictus (thistle) to opiates.    

A Mr Ranby advised in December 1748 that she must ‘never omit Asses Milk’ in her cancer treatment (and also not omit opiates). This description is followed by a detailed account of Mrs Arscott’s experience with the treatment, which did not agree with her and she had a ‘terrible return of her complaints’.[8]  

Mrs Arscott’s treatment using artificial asses’ milk. Wellcome MS. 981, insert.

It was also common practice to create an artificial variety, and Sally Osborn has written about the creation of artificial asses’ milk. Once again, the snail proves his worth as it was used to make this mock version (more information see here). Both genuine and artificial versions of asses’ milk treated respiratory problems.

For treating a ‘hectic or inward heat’, a recipe from Dr Ratcliff found in multiple recipe collections called for snails with pearl barley and candied eringo root, boiled and strained.[9] The frequency at which both snail based and genuine asses’ milk were recorded in recipe books, alongside claims of their efficacy, is testament to the credibility of these animal ingredients.

From slime and ooze to elixir of life, animals (and their derived products) held great significance in medicine and cosmetics in the eighteenth century. The snail, honey, and asses’ milk were clearly valued for their medicinal properties, and it’s fascinating that they have renewed purpose in the beauty industry. Today’s miracle anti-aging elixirs, hair tonics, and brightening creams don’t contain revolutionary ingredients. They are in fact, old news – tried and tested since 1700!

(And earlier…)


[1] Michelle DiMeo and Rebecca Laroche, ‘On Elizabeth Isham’s “Oil of Swallows”: Animal Slaughter and Early Modern Women’s Medical Recipes’, in Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche (eds.), Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 87–104; Edith Snook, ‘“The Beautifying Part of Physic”: Women’s Cosmetic Practices in Early Modern England’, Journal of Women’s History, 20, 3 (2008), pp. 10–33.

[2] As stated in M. Mascall’s late 18th–early 19th C. collection: Wellcome Library, London, MS 7875, f. 96.

[3] Nicholas Culpeper, Pharmacopoeia Londinensis: or, the London Dispensatory (London, 1708), pp.108–9.  

[4] Arscott family, ‘Physical Reciepts [sic]’ (c. 1725–76). Wellcome Library, London, MS 981, ff. 8r.-v.

[5] Abigail Smith and others, ‘Collection of medical and cookery receipts’ (c. 1700).  Wellcome Library, London, MS 4631, f. 7r.

[6] Ibid., f. 23 v

[7] Grizel, Lady Stanhope (née Hamilton), ‘Recipe Book (culinary and medicinal)’ (1746), Stanhope of Chevening Manuscripts. Kent History Centre, U1590/C43/2, f. 75r.  

[8] Wellcome Library, London, MS 981, insert.

[8] Ibid. 53v.

Fetch Me at Pearl Nest Street: Rhubarb Pills as Panacea in Qing China

He Bian

In the late eighteenth century, American ginseng opened up a new niche market in Qing China. At the same time, Chinese rhubarb (dahuang) roots, harvested from the northwest regions of the empire, were transported by Chinese traders all the way to the southeast coast and sold off to foreign customers in Canton (Figure 1). Part of these transactions took place in the Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa Islands), a vassal state of the Qing but also an important node of global trade that crisscrossed the West Pacific. At some point in 1789, the Qing court issued an edict to the Ryukyu king that explicitly forbade him from selling rhubarb to Russians, with whom the Qing was then engaging in an all-out trade war. Rhubarb featured prominently in the Qing strategy because they believed that Europeans imported so much of this drug that they could not live a day without it.[1]

Figure 1. Chinese or Turkish rhubarb (Rheum palmatum): flowering and fruiting stem with leaf. Coloured zincograph after M. A. Burnett, c. 1842. Credit: Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/cvty3qqk
Figure 1. Chinese or Turkish rhubarb (Rheum palmatum): flowering and fruiting stem with leaf. Coloured zincograph after M. A. Burnett, c. 1842. Credit: Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/cvty3qqk

Yet is it really true that pharmacological visions in early modern China and Europe were so different that they could not possibly reach a consensus over rhubarb’s properties ? Classical Chinese pharmaceutical literature listed rhubarb as a drug with a “very cold” nature, and generations of physicians were taught not to use the cold drug in curing cold-natured diseases. This suggested that Russians (and other Westerners, as seen in this post on rhubarb in early modern England) had different bodies than the Qing Chinese, as they depended on rhubarb as an all-round cure. Pharmacological theories, in other words, engendered a vision of difference that seemed insurmountable.

During my recent reading of Qing medical recipe books, however, I discovered that rhubarb in fact functioned as nothing short of a panacea for Qing Chinese. This is evident in the text Bianyong liangfang (Excellent Recipes for Expedient Use), which appeared in the Jiaqing reign (1796-1820). Compact (only 2-juan in length) and very nicely printed (with carved woodblocks), it arranges pills, powders, tinctures, and decoctions by symptom. The book has about 120 pages, and most recipes are merely a few lines in length. What surprised me was that one very long recipe at the end of the text takes up the entirety of 13 pages. The remedy in question, mi shou Qingning wan (Secretly transmitted pill of purity and tranquility), calls for “several dozen pounds” of good quality rhubarb roots as the principal ingredient. Rubbed clean and steeped in rice water, the rhubarb was sliced, sun-dried, processed with “ash-less good rice liquor” for three days, and then put through a lengthy, elaborate protocol of fifteen rounds of steaming. Each steam involved a different set of herbs. Finally, makers took the resultant rhubarb paste, mixed it with “yellow ox milk” (using cooked honey as substitute if there was no milk), boy’s urine, ginger juice, and rolled it into tiny pills. The recipe listed hundreds of common illnesses that could be treated with this pill, ranging from headache and hemorrhage to gynecological disorders.

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

I have tried to look up this recipe in earlier Chinese medical texts, and my preliminary findings suggest that it probably came into existence no earlier than the seventeenth century. It became wildly popular in the eighteenth century, and recipe books serve as evidence of its widespread consumption. On the last page of Bianyong liangfang (Figure 2), the compiler, Luo Benli, announced that he had a batch of rhubarb pills prepared during his tenure in Guizhou – a southwestern province of China – and that, in case of emergency, readers could “call upon my house on Pearl Nest Street” and look for the “residence of Mr. Luo of the Ministry of Defense (bingbu Luo zhai).” Pearl Nest Street (zhuchaojie), a neighborhood in Qing Beijing not far from the Forbidden City, featured prime real estate. As a military official who had served in the frontier provinces, Luo was less bound by medical norms of the day and possessed the financial and political capital to manufacture elaborate pills like these. Was there, in other words, a sub-culture of health and medication championed by military elites such as Luo, which stood distinct from classical prescriptions?

One last word about this recipe that hints at a hidden connection between different cultural realms in early modern China: Sun Xingyan (1753-1818), a prominent scholar who combed through medieval sources for fragments of ancient texts, published the same recipe for Pill of Purity and Tranquility in his scholarly series. The inclusion of this Qing text alongside ancient monographs so bewildered modern bibliographers that they mistakenly attributed the recipe’s author to a seventh-century figure. In fact, Sun Xingyan made it clear that it was a contemporary remedy and provided an elaborate scholarly argument to defend rhubarb’s all-around efficacy to cure both hot and cold-natured illnesses. He also suggested that “vulgar physicians” despised the pill because if everyone had access to this remedy then their businesses would be lost. Therefore it does appear that, when it comes to rhubarb, Qing Chinese scholars and military commanders were no less enthusiastic than what they imagined about the Russians.

 

[1] I recommend this excellent essay by Chang Che-Chia (translated by Penelope Barrett) for more on this curious episode.

Making and Consuming Perfume in Eighteenth-Century England

Dr William Tullett asks why manuscript recipes for perfumes were on the decline in the eighteenth century, and investigates the role of the senses in perfume making.

A survey of the vast collection in the Wellcome library suggests that the presence of perfumery in manuscript recipe books slowly declined during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Why did this happen? One answer could be that perfumery and pharmacy were slowly separating during the eighteenth century. Previously, perfume, pies, and prescriptions were promiscuously mixed because the boundaries between ‘food’, ‘cosmetics’, and ‘medicines’ were blurred in the 1600s: for instance, odours were thought to contain medical powers. Eighteenth-century physicians were increasingly sceptical about this possibility. Fumigations (to purify the air of houses) and pomanders (balls of perfume to protect against plague) were less common in recipe books by 1750. Perhaps perfume no longer fitted within the holistic tradition of ‘kitchen-physic’. Yet, despite the concerns of the medical profession, perfumes continued to be advertised and used for their medicinal benefits. Fainting dandies at the opera could still reach for the eau de cologne when all the extended vowels and overwhelming music got too much.

‘Tom Rakewell in a cell in the Fleet Prison. Engraving by T. Cook after W. Hogarth.’ by William Hogarth. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

Another explanation is the increasing availability of ready-made perfumery, printed recipe books, and an emerging sense of commercial, fashion-oriented, consumer behaviour. Whilst print could easily be incorporated into manuscript recipe books, the proliferation of ready-made perfumery certainly had an impact. Insurance records on Locating London’s Past list over 300 perfumers in London between 1777 and 1786. The influence of the market is detectable in the introductions to print recipe books. For example, Simon Barbe’s The French Perfumer (English translation, London, 1696) lists biblical and noble patrons of perfume to inspire  home-brewed perfumery. Charles Lillie’s The British Perfumer (London, 1740s but published 1822) is introduced as a tool for negotiating the commercial market in perfumery: it would help prevent ‘purchasers of perfumes’ from ‘being impose[d] upon… beyond a fair, moderate, and reasonable profit’. Lillie’s book also contains some choice words on domestic perfumery. He attacked those who used ‘scraps of old women’s receipts’ and ‘gleamings from table-talk’. Above all it is fellow perfumers, working for profit in a luxury marketplace, to whom Lillie addresses his recipes.

Lillie’s recipe book has lots to say on how perfumers used their senses to assay the quality of ingredients. The inability to describe odours with precision (except through an emotional vocabulary or by reference to other materials) or remember them easily meant that touch, sight, and taste were thus the chief ways of testing ingredients. Examining ambergris, for example, Lillie noted that the worst was black or dark brown, heavy, hard to break, and had little smell. The best ambergris on the other hand was grey, easy to break and light in weight. If the ambergris had been adulterated with white sand, then Lillie suggested the use of a looking glass to check. Another test involved pricking the material with a hot needle to see if the ‘genuine odour will be given out’. However, Lillie added that ‘best way… to detect such frauds is always for the perfumer to keep by him a small piece of genuine ambergris; and… he should compare their smells by this experiment’. Without the original object smell was never a certain judge.

Where external appearances were similar, as with cassia lignum and cinnamon bark, taste could be used: cinnamon was ‘sharp and biting’ to the taste whereas cassia was ‘sweet and mawkish’. The less salty genoa soap was to the taste, the better quality it was. Touch was mobilised too: clove bark was best when at its most friable, whilst poor quality rice powder, used to make hair powder, was ‘moistened with water to give it a soft and silky feel’. Lillie’s recipe book demonstrates that sensory marks of quality were central for the perfumer because, in an era of economic specialisation, they increasingly relied on druggists, chemists, apothecaries, and grocers for their ingredients. The vanilla-scented gum benjamin (benzoin) was to be had from wax chandlers who used it to perfume sealing wax; druggists were a source for civet, although they adulterated it with honey; and even oils and essences, where the production of commercial quantities required large stills, were to be obtained from chemists ‘who actually distil it themselves’.

‘Glass bottle for eau de cologne, Paris, France, 1780-1850’ by Science Museum, London. Credit: Science Museum, London. CC BY.

But what about the senses of consumers who bought, rather than made, perfumes? For the small number of individuals who were still making their own perfumery, the perfumer’s shop was important for buying essences and oils ready-made. Mary Forster’s handwritten recipes for soft and hard pomatum, made from hogs’ lard to dress the hair or soften skin, list a range of waters, oils, or essences that could be bought from perfumers and added, depending on preference; these included rose, geranium, and jasmine. Lillie’s book suggests that perfumers were no longer the reliable source of such a wide variety of raw ingredients. Instead they produced ready-made items, some of which – especially waters, essences, and oils – could be used straight away in scent bottles and handkerchiefs or taken home to be used in other recipes. But consumers buying ready-made hair-powder, pomatum, or liquid scents would be far less aware of the colour, texture, weight, and other sensory qualities of the original materials. Perfume advertising also focussed less on particular ingredients and more on the feelings and places the perfumes evoked: in the 1770s Richard Warren’s trade cards evoked biblical frankincense and the odoriferous gales of the east, whilst in 1801, Hester Thrail Piozzia marvelled at the perfumer’s ability to compress ‘India’s fragrance… into a Guinea phial of Odour of Roses’.[1]

What does this tell us about the senses? It might suggest a move closer to a more ‘monolfactory’ (to coin a term) way of smelling, without any sense of a material’s other sensory properties. A loose analogy would be acousmatic listening – where one can hear something but not see the source of the sound (as on the radio). This way of smelling would, during the nineteenth-century, become part of the culture of perfumery we know today – clear, spray-on, liquids that are abstract, aimed at evoking feeling, and carry fewer of the multisensory connotations of the original ingredients. Eighteenth-century recipe books help us trace some of the origins of this slow sensory shift.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

William Tullett is a Past and Present Research Fellow at the Institute for Historical Research, London. William has just completed his first book, A Social Sense: Smell in Eighteenth-Century England, and is currently working on a new project on sound and urban change in the period between 1660 and 1840. He has published articles on early modern perfume, smell in eighteenth-century pleasure gardens and smell’s role in racial stereotypes.

 

[1] Oswald G. Knapp (ed.), The Intimate Letters of Hester Thrale Piozzi and Penelope Pennington, 1788-1821 (London, 1914), p. 229.