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.

Locating Traditional Plant Knowledge in Household Recipes: Part 4

By Anne Stobart

This is the last of four posts about my investigation into traditionally used native (folkloric) plants in medicinal seventeenth-century recipes. In the first two posts (here and here) I looked at the most frequently appearing plants and some differences in recipe indications in print and manuscript contexts. In my third post I discussed some less frequent plant ingredients. In this post I want to flag up some factors which might have affected the inclusion of these plants in remedies. The ideas presented here draw on the chapter on the nature of medicinal ingredients in my forthcoming book Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England.[1]

Views of simples versus exotics

Knowledge of native plants in traditional use may have been regarded by some in the seventeenth century as less than worthy, and Rebecca Laroche notes that the word ‘simples’ was removed by John Parkinson in the title of Theatrum Botanicum (previously the ‘Garden of Simples’).[2] Patrick Wallis describes substantial increases in seventeenth-century medicinal imports, showing that the use of ‘exotics’ was widespread. [3] So it might not be so surprising if native plants appeared somewhat less often in medicinal recipes. If knowledge about such plants was passed on orally then perhaps we might not expect to see any of them in medicinal recipes. However, when I looked at the occurrence of forty common native plants in my database of seventeenth-century recipes I found variable numbers. Thus, some native plants that were also known in the scholarly tradition were almost as common as spices, while others, especially acrid plants, were far less common, particularly in the later seventeenth century.

Fewer recipes for external use in the later seventeenth century?

Another factor affecting the likelihood of a native plant appearing in a recipe might have been the changing nature of recipe preparations: from recipes for external use such as plasters and ointments to those for internal use such as drinks. I compared the numbers of internal and external preparations in my database of 6500 recipes. Such an analysis has to be tentative as the dating of recipes is not always accurate. In the first half of the seventeenth century, they split almost evenly: the printed recipes favoured external preparations at 56% of all recipes, a little more than external preparations in the household recipes at 49%. However, in the second half of the seventeenth century, the balance shifted noticeably towards internal preparations in both household and printed recipes. The proportion of external preparations decreased to to nearly 42% in printed books, and less than 38% of recipes in household collections. It is possible that this shift  could have contributed to less frequent inclusion of some native plants.

Figure 1. Elder flower and leaf (Sambucus nigra)
Figure 1. Elder flower and leaf (Sambucus nigra)






Interest in simples

Conversely, some native traditional plants did reappear towards the latter half of the seventeenth century. An example is elder (Sambucus nigra) (Figure 1), a frequently mentioned ingredient in the King’s evil recipes collected by the Boscawen family in Cornwall. Earlier in the century elder was listed in recipes for burns and sores as well as plague and ague remedies. By the later half of the seventeenth century, use was  recommended by friends and lay advisers for the KIng’s evil.[4] Another suggested recipe contained foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) (Figure 2) as a simple:

Figure 2. Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)
Figure 2. Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

An Excelent Medicine for the Kings Evill

Take of the flowers of fox gloves and infuse them in Butter soe long in an oven as may be Convenient to sooke out the vertue of the said flowers then take the butter of and anoynt the plate and the thinn Cloth that is to be applyed and soe Contynnue to dresse it by Anoynting the Cloth as is usuall in a Scald. [5]

Interest in simples was also promoted by Helmontian physicians, and the powers of purified remedies provided strong advertising claims by commercial remedy sellers.[6]


Understanding the knowledge and use of traditional native plants in seventeenth-century medicinal recipes is not straightforward. Many of these plants were included in external preparations which were declining in the seventeenth century. Yet, towards the early eighteenth century some native plants were reappearing in favour both in recipes and as simples.

[1] Anne Stobart, Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016).

[2] Rebecca Laroche, Medical Authority and Englishwomen’s Herbal Texts, 1550-1650 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), p.151.

[3] Patrick Wallis, ‘Exotic Drugs and English Medicine: England’s Drug Trade, c. 1550–c. 1800’. Social History of Medicine 25, no. 1 (2012): 20–46.

[4] Anne Stobart, ‘”Lett Her Refrain from All Hott Spices”: Medicinal Recipes and Advice in the Treatment of the King’s Evil in Seventeenth-Century South-West England’. In Reading and Writing Recipe Books, 1550-1800, edited by Michelle DiMeo and Sara Pennell, 203-24. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013.

[5] Fortescue of Castle Hill papers, 1262M/FC/7. Exeter: Devon Heritage Centre, item 18.

[6] David B. Haycock, ‘A Thing Ridiculous’? Chemical Medicines and the Prolongation of Human Life in Seventeenth-Century England (London: London School of Economics, 2006), p. 23.