Tag Archives: russia

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.

A Recipe for a Gothic Novel

By Katherine Bowers

Terrorist Novel Writing,” an anonymous essay that appeared in The Spirit of the Public Journals for 1797 (Volume 1), closes with the following recipe for creating a gothic novel in the style of popular author Ann Radcliffe, “should any of [the journal’s] female readers be desirous of catching the season of terrors, she may compose two or three pretty volumes”:

Take – An old castle, half of it ruinous.

A long gallery, with a great many doors, some secret ones.

Three murdered bodies, quite fresh.

As many skeletons, in chests and presses.

An old woman hanging by the neck; with her throat cut;

Assassins and desperados quant. suff.

Noises, whispers and groans, three-score at least.

Mix them together, in the form of three volumes, to be taken at any of the watering-places before going to bed.              PROBATUM EST.

 

Catherine Morland reading Udolpho, from the 1833 Bentley edition of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (Image credit: public domain, digitized by ebooks@Adelaide)
Catherine Morland reading Udolpho, from the 1833 Bentley edition of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (Image credit: public domain, digitized by ebooks@Adelaide)

This satirical piece plays with generic expectation to amuse readers. The recipe, a familiar domestic literary genre, has its own conventions: “Take–“; “Mix…”; “[T]o be taken.” The genre requires specificity: here, the castle is not just old, but must be also half ruined. The old woman is not only hanging, but her throat must also have been cut. Smaller words from the recipe lexicon appear to describe the precise arrangement of ingredients needed for this three-volume novel. The murdered bodies are not only meticulously quantified, but also specified as to quality, “quite fresh.” As the recipe continues, features of the Gothic novel that might normally be considered exceptional or unquantifiable are multiplied and quantified: assassins, desperados, noises, whispers and groans. When enumerated thus, such features become mundane… and funny.

The recipe formula exposes the formulaic quality of gothic novels, and such gothic recipes appeared regularly in journals in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Mixing these ingredients together, as gruesome as they are, always produces the same result, a fact attested to by the Latin postscript PROBATUM EST, a testimony that the recipe has been tested, and will work the same each time. The three volumes of the novel produced are objects for consumption, not artistic works. They are untitled and interchangeable.

The first wave of gothic novels published in Great Britain in the late eighteenth century introduced eager readers—most often young ladies—to a long list of terror-inducing conventions: ruined castles, haunted monasteries, incestuous abductions, demonic pacts, tortured corpses, and horrible secrets. The first gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), lent the genre its name and featured a unique story line with alarming mysterious events such as death by giant helmet crushing. In the preface to The Old English Baron (1778), another early gothic novel that features a plot with a stolen inheritance, a rightful heir, and a ruinous castle, author Clara Reeve acknowledges her debt to Walpole. She sets out to “fix” Walpole’s errors, creating a new work, yet still describing her novel as “the literary offspring of The Castle of Otranto.” As this example demonstrates, a growing genre is naturally imitative.

Death by giant helmet! Illustration from the 1824 edition of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (Image credit: Creative Common license, University of St. Andrews Library Special Collections, Fle PR1297.E23).
Death by giant helmet! Illustration from the 1824 edition of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (Image credit: Creative Common license, University of St. Andrews Library Special Collections, Fle PR1297.E23).

My research examines the influence of these gothic novels on Russian literature, decades after their original publication in Great Britain. As Orest Somov’s “Plan for a Novel à la Radcliffe,” published in May 1816 in the Kharkov Democrat, demonstrates, Russian critics also turned to a recipe text to satirize gothic novels:

 

 Robbers, an underground prison,

A tower, half a dozen owls;

Gleaming through ravines the moon has risen,

Wolves are baying, the wind howls;

Awful dreams torment my heroes

Fiery dragons, flying griffins from myth;

Fear, horror after them flows…

There you have it, a novel à la Radcliffe!

Somov’s “Plan” and the anonymous recipe above rely on the same methods for producing humor through mundanely quantifying atmospheric pieces. The ubiquity of the gothic genre’s typical props, settings, and tropes meant that critics considered them formulaic and unoriginal. These recipes suggest that creating novels in this vein is a matter of following a basic plan, implying that Radcliffe’s novels are imitative and easily reproduced.

However, while critics complained, the novels with their improbable plots and excessive horrors were widely popular, demonstrating that literary merit and public taste are not necessarily the same. Ann Radcliffe’s novels, in particular, were reprinted in multiple new editions each year; less than a decade after its original publication, by 1803, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), her most famous, had already been printed in five new editions in Britain. In early nineteenth-century Russia, her name on a cover was enough to make a best seller, and a number of books she did not write were attributed to her, including translations of Matthew Lewis’s novel The Monk (1796) and original novels written by Russian translators, who could produce new gothic novels faster than they could translate them.

Radcliffe was the most-read writer in late eighteenth-century Britain, and exercised influence, even abroad, years after her death. In the 1860s, Fyodor Dostoevsky, for example, recalls his childhood love for Radcliffe’s novels: “I used to spend the long winter hours before bed listening (for I could not yet read), agape with ecstasy and terror, as my parents read aloud to me from the novels of Ann Radcliffe. Then I would rave deliriously about them in my sleep.” This quote and others like it make me wonder: Are the critics right when they say that gothic novels are all basically the same? How can a repeated reading experience produce such a powerful effect? Even if gothic novels are formulaic, to have such an impact on a reader years afterward demonstrates their influence, so why were critics so reluctant to take them seriously? Can genre fiction ever be considered great literature?

Thinking about these gothic recipes, there’s more to them than just a demonstration of the formulaic nature of the genre. Recipes may produce the same result each time, but a recipe is repeated when the results are delicious. And when a novel is good, we devour it… or savor it, like a tasty meal. As even the “Terrorist Novel Writing” author acknowledges, three-volume novels of terror taken before bed in a leisurely way can be very pleasant indeed.

Katherine Bowers is an Assistant Professor of Slavic Studies at the University of British Columbia. She specializes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Russian literature and culture. Currently she is working on a book about the influence of gothic fiction on Russian realism.

[1] Cited and translated in: Alessandra Tosi, Waiting for Pushkin: Russian Fiction in the Reign of Alexander I (1801-1825) (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006), 84-85.

[2] Fedor Dostoevskii, Zimnie zametki o letnikh vpechetleniiakh, in Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v 30 tomakh (Moscow: Nauka, 1972-1990), Volume 5, 46. Translated by David Patterson, in Fyodor Dostoevsky, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1997), 1-2.

On Cabbages

By Alison K. Smith

Cabbage
James John Howard Gregory, Cabbages: how to grow them (Salem, Mass.: Observer steam print, 1878), p. 59. https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages.

In late January 1868, a short article appeared in the Vladimir Provincial News, the local newspaper for a region near Moscow, signed by the provincial medical inspector Aliakrinskii. In it, he warned of a particular local threat to public health:

Due to last summer’s crop failure of cabbage, many do not have it preserved for cabbage soup, which is the major daily food of the peasants in this province. And due to the lack of cabbage soup, as people are used to it, if another sort of sour food is not substituted for it, scurvy may appear.

This was a major problem for a Russian province in the mid-nineteenth century. Aliakrinskii was right—nearly every account of Russian peasant foodways in these northern regions mentioned the centrality of cabbage, and particularly preserved (fermented) cabbage. Shchi, cabbage soup, was the most quintessentially Russian food. In response to a criticism of cabbage as a food, the Russian medical author Ia. S. Chistovich exclaimed “And sour or fermented cabbage? What could replace it for the Russian people?” as a note to his 1852 translation of A. Becquerel’s treatise on hygiene.

Aliakrinskii, though, was concerned not out of a fear of famine (cabbage soup was important, but grains were the major food source) but out of a fear of scurvy. No one yet knew exactly what caused scurvy, but in Russian medical circles, everyone believed that fermented cabbage (not plain cabbage) was one of the things that stopped it. And so, Aliakrinskii gave a series of short recipes (basically, recipes that peasants might be able to make) for substitutes that would, he claimed, stop scurvy’s progress.

To avoid that, the provincial government advises to substitute for cabbage soup as a hot dish a gruel of some sort of grain or a potato soup, adding to either while it is cooking cut up pickles and pickle brine, so the taste of that gruel or soup is a little sour; it is also good to add pepper and a bay leaf; and for a cold dish tyurya is recommended, that is, kvass with rye bread crumbs, pepper, and grated or ground horseradish; or kvass with chopped up salted cucumbers, adding to that onion and horseradish, or grated radish; or tolokno, of oat flour dissolved in kvass. And when there are beets in storage, then from there prepare Ukrainian buraki: for that put cut up beets in a tub, pour in water and, putting in there a bit of sour dough, let it ferment; then, having cut up the fermented beets finely, cook them with pepper and a bay leaf. To drink in every family there should be good kvass. When spring and summer come, it will be useful to make a hot dish like cabbage soup out of sorrel, and from beet greens that have been boiled and then cut up fine and mixed with kvass, adding in onion and horseradish, you get the cold dish called botvin’e. It is also useful in spring and summer to eat green onions, both garden ones and those that grow wild in low-lying meadows; for those one should first cut them up and pound them in a wooden mortar, and then mix them with kvass. (VGV (27 January 1868)).

The assumption in these recipes is that the thing that stopped scurvy was the particular sourness of fermented cabbage—not the cabbage itself, despite the fact that it is actually a good source of vitamin C. All of these recipes take what would otherwise be bland foods (gruel, potato soup, breadcrumbs, even beets) and add sourness to them. Sometimes that sourness comes from another fermented food—the kvass (the favorite lightly fermented drink of Russia) that featured in almost every recipe—or by adding fermentation—the instructions to ferment beets—or by adding pickles and pickle brine, probably the sourest option. They also mostly add other sharp, strong, almost spicy flavors: pepper, horseradish, onion, radish. This echoes other moments in which Russian culinary or medical writers associated a taste for such strong flavors with a native Russian healthiness—in 1841, in an article “And More on Food” in the journal The Economist, an anonymous Russian author claimed that “of the Russians, only the milksops [nezhenki] do not eat onions . . . our great-grandfathers did not know medicinal mixtures at all, and all because they were able to live, eat, and drink better than us, and also, how they loved onion, garlic, radish, pepper, and such foods!”

 

 

 

 

 

Love Magic in 18th century Russia: a Search for Passion in Russian History

Elena Smilianskaia

'For a Love Potion' M. V. Nesterov (1888) (www.artcontext.info)
‘For a Love Potion’
M. V. Nesterov (1888)
(www.artcontext.info)

Love magic has existed in human history from the very start, and it continues to exist today – the Recipes Project has already featured some fifteenth-century English love spells. It is not very difficult to find a person who guarantees a client ‘true’ love potions and very effective love spells in any city of the world. The texts that ancient and contemporary magicians use in their ‘craft’ have a lot of commonalities, including:

  • A desire that a love object looks at you and will ‘never tire of looking’
  • A desire that a love object forgets all his/or her relatives, primarily a father and a mother, and thinks only about you
  • A desire that a love object can neither eat nor drink in his/her love fever
  • A love fever being compared with madness, or with fire.
  •  

    So if we state that all of these concepts from love spells are the same for different cultures and historical periods, then we must conclude that human expressions of love passion do not dramatically change over time and it is hardly possible to find a specific transition in the sphere of love. Alternatively, we must try to compare cases of using magic in love and verbal descriptions of love feelings for each concrete period and specific culture to prove that we can talk about the transformation and the evolution of love spells (although very slowly and primarily in the external sphere, in ‘the clothes of love’). I prefer the second way.

    In eighteenth-century Russian magic texts a person who has fallen in love can find not only a description of their extreme feelings but a hope that magic would either help to overcome this ‘sinful passion’ or to make the object of their passion share a love. It also helped to comprehend why one’s affection so influenced human life and behavior.

    There are cases in which an individual was sure that love magic was definitely the origin of an otherwise inexplicable passion: one example that I like very much comes from 1740, when a peasant named Vasiliy Gerasimov at last understood why his daughter lived with a church sexton Maxim Dyakonov: he found Maxim’s love spells. By 1740, Vasiliy’s daughter had already had two babies with Maxim, but only a sheet of paper with the text of a love spell explained everything…

    'The Sorcerer at the Wedding' V. M. Maksimov (1875) (WikiCommons)
    ‘The Sorcerer at the Wedding’
    V. M. Maksimov (1875)
    (WikiCommons)

    It is also notable that very often love itself was considered to be an illness and was cured the same way: not only by a witch or a sorcerer, but by an ordinary healer. It was also thought that love spells might cause diseases in a human body (there are some court cases mentioning that a woman under the effect of love magic ‘swelled up’ and suffered from physical pain and only counter-magic rituals could help her).  In a lot of situations when a woman became a klikusha (a kind of witch), the community was convinced that somebody (a man of course!) had wanted to bewitch the woman, making her unable to resist passion and evil intentions.

    Magic was always suspected when feelings were out of control. For example, when in 1737 a servant-maid named Ustinya Grigorieva fell in love with a soldier, she considered her ‘great pangs’ of melancholy to be magical in origin. In her testimony during the trial she described her actions.  She reported that she had thought: ‘this soldier or somebody else has bewitched her?’  and so she went to the sorcerer Masey who read a spell over wine, put an unknown root into it and gave the wine to Ustinya to drink – and… she became free of her love pangs and the feeling of love itself.

    Condemned by the Orthodox Church, passion and erotic love in traditional Russian culture were considered for a very long time to be sinful, demonic, and therefore connected with magic. But in eighteenth-century Russia, magic provided a way for people to comprehend the origins of passion, and its influence on human behavior, as well as the means to control that behaviour.

    This post is the sixth and final in this month’s series of posts on Russian recipes. Previous posts have introduced early modern Russia, told us how to feed our servants, how to get over hangovers, how to heal foreigners, and how to cook in the Urals.