Fragrant Protection: Saffron in Medieval China

By Yan Liu

In 647, an emissary from Gapi, a kingdom in northern India, presented a plant called “yu gold aromatic” (yu jin xiang) to the court of Tang (618-907). The foreign herb flowered in the ninth month of the year, with the shape of a lotus. The color of the flowers was purplish blue, and their fragrance could be smelled over tens of paces.

This account comes from a tenth-century institutional history of Tang (Tang huiyao), in a section that reviews a list of plants and animals submitted by the foreign countries to the Tang. The event took place at a time when the Tang was ascending to a powerful and cosmopolitan empire, expanding its territory into Central Asia. As a result, the period witnessed a vibrant material exchange between China and India, Tibet, Persia (and from the mid-seventh century on, the Arabic empire), and even as far as Europe (see Edward Schafer’s classic work on this topic, also see an earlier post). Saliently, a wide array of foreign aromatics entered China, such as aloeswood and camphor from Southeast Asia, frankincense from India, and myrrh from Persia, which greatly enriched Chinese pharmacy.

What then is “yu gold aromatic”? Most likely, the name refers to saffron in medieval Chinese sources. “Gold” (jin) probably specifies the color of the flower, and “aromatic” (xiang) naturally points to its characteristic smell. Intriguingly, the word “yu” conjures up a fragrant herb in ancient China, which was used to scent ritual wine. Therefore, medieval Chinese writers took a familiar word from the past to name a foreign plant thereby readily integrating it into their own cultural terrain.

Not surprisingly, the earliest account of saffron in Chinese sources identifies the herb as a wine-scenting agent. According to a third-century text on natural history (Nanzhou yiwu zhi), saffron grew in Kashmir—still a major site of saffron production today—where local people offered its fresh flowers to Buddha whilst collecting the withered flowers to make fragrant wine. In the following centuries, saffron entered China either as a diplomatic gift (shown in the opening story) or as a commodity of trade. It was an expensive substance due to the intense labor involved in harvesting the three red stigmas of each flower. To obtain one pound of saffron, based on one estimation, seventy thousand flowers must be manually collected. This “circumstantial rarity,” to use Paul Freedman’s term, has made saffron one of the most costly spices in the world.

How was saffron used in medieval China? Noticeably, it became a powerful antidote. According to the eighth-century pharmacological work Supplement to Materia Medica (Bencao shiyi), saffron can dispel all types of noxious odors. Often mixed with other aromatics, it can eliminate malignant qi and demonic possession in the body. Later medical texts (Fig. 1) make it explicit that the fragrant plant can counter all poisons, highlighting its antidotal value.

Figure 1: Illustration of saffron in an early 16th-century pharmacological text (Bencao pinhui jingyao, 1505). Image from Zhonghua dadian, ed. Zheng Jinsheng, 2008

In addition, saffron appeared in Buddhist healing rituals. In a seventh-century scripture titled “Sutra of Golden Light,” we encounter a recipe of thirty-two aromatics (saffron included) that promises to cure all disorders and ward off adverse influences (Fig. 2). In particular, the recipe recommends that the aromatic mixture be employed to cleanse the body, with the following instruction: on the eighth day of the month, take an equal amount of each aromatic, pound and sift them, and collect the powder. Next, cast a spell on the powder for one hundred and eight times before adding it into water to wash the body. Situating drugs in a proper ritual—in this case an incantatory performance—was vital for their efficacy.

Figure 2: A recipe of thirty-two aromatics in the 7th-century Buddhist text Sutra of Golden Light. The purple box highlights saffron, written in both Chinese and Sanskrit names. Dunhuang manuscript S. 6107. Image courtesy of the International Dunhuang Project (British Library).

 

Given its strong scent, saffron was also used as a perfume in medieval China. The seventh-century medical work Essential Emergency Recipes Worth a Thousand in Gold (Beiji qianjin yaofang) by Sun Simiao, for example, offers a number of recipes to perfume clothes. One utilizes eighteen aromatics including frankincense, clove, aloeswood, musk, and saffron. Upon pounding into powder, they are mixed with boiled honey and jujube, and made into pills. Burning these pills creates vapor to scent clothes. Due to the high price of saffron at the time, it is conceivable that only the wealthy elites could afford such a perfume. Consistent with this, several Tang poems associate saffron with the sumptuous clothes of elite women. The scent of the exotic flower became a sign for patrician beauty.

Finally, I must say a few words about saffron as a spice in China. This is the primary function of the herb today, especially in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. It also constituted the chief use of the herb in medieval Europe, for enhancing the flavor and color of food. Yet the culinary use of saffron was minimal in medieval China; we have to wait until the 14th century, when China was under Mongol rule, to see the use of saffron as a spice, especially for preparing meat dishes. This practice, though, remained marginal in the following centuries. Today in China, saffron, curiously called “Tibetan Red Flower” (zang hong hua), is harnessed primarily as a medicine, not as a spice. Why? This is a fascinating puzzle that awaits further research, which invites us to ponder the untold journeys from smell to taste, from medicine to food, from the exotic to the familiar.

Transmission of drug knowledge in medieval China: A case of Gelsemium

By Yan Liu

Figure 1. Illustration of gouwen (Gelsemium) in an early sixteenth-century materia medica text (Bencao pinhui jingyao, 1505). Image from Zhonghua dadian, ed. Zheng Jinsheng, 2008.
Figure 1. Illustration of gouwen (Gelsemium) in an early sixteenth-century materia medica text (Bencao pinhui jingyao, 1505). Image from Zhonghua dadian, ed. Zheng Jinsheng, 2008.

One striking feature of classical Chinese pharmacology is the abundant use of toxic substances. Prominent examples are aconite, arsenic, and bezoar. Fully aware of the toxicity, or du, of these materials, Chinese doctors developed a variety of methods to prepare and deploy them for therapy. How was such knowledge produced in traditional China? And how did it migrate from one space to another? Here I use several medical documents from the seventh century to explore these questions, focusing on gouwen 鈎吻 (Gelsemium), a toxic herb growing in southern China (Fig. 1).

The seventh century is a crucial moment in the history of Chinese medicine. The favorable political environment of early Tang dynasty (618-755) fostered the flourishing of medical ideas and the formation of a number of influential texts. One of them is the Newly Revised Materia Medica (Xinxiu bencao 新修本草, 659), the first state-sponsored pharmacopeia produced in China. Compiled by more than twenty court scholars, the text reflects the government’s effort to standardize medical knowledge. Gelsemium is one of the 850 drugs in the book (Fig. 2). Defined as warming, pungent, and highly toxic, the root of the herb could cure, among others, wounds inflicted by metal weapons ulcers, swelling, and convulsion. The authors also stressed the great danger of the herb by showing that drips squeezed from one or two leaves would suffice to kill a person. But not a goat. Quite the contrary, its sprouts could make the animal grow large. It must be, the authors mused, the case that everything in the world submits to something else.

Figure 2. The entry of gouwen (Gelsemium) in the Newly Revised Materia Medica (659). This copy of the text is from Dunhuang (P. 3714), dated to 667. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France (Gallica).
Figure 2. The entry of gouwen (Gelsemium) in the Newly Revised Materia Medica (659).
This copy of the text is from Dunhuang (P. 3714), dated to 667. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France (Gallica).

Gelsemium was also embraced by contemporary doctors. Sun Simiao 孫思邈 (?-682), one of the most famous doctors in Chinese history, incorporated the drug into his Essential Recipes of A Thousand Gold Worth (Qianjin yaofang 千金要方, mid-seventh century). The toxic herb appears in nineteen prescriptions in the text, primarily for topical treatment. In one case, Sun presented a recipe called “Ointment of Gelsemium” to treat toxic swelling, pain and numbness in the limbs, ulcers, weak feet, among other conditions. At the end, Sun warned: “This recipe should not be given to vulgar people. Be cautious.”

Why did Sun keep the recipe away from vulgar people, a term referring to commoners? Two possible reasons. First, handling Gelsemium was a delicate matter. Due to its high toxicity, any misuse of the herb could result in devastating, if not lethal, consequences. Commoners may not possess the proper knowledge of deploying the herb, hence they should refrain from taking this recipe. Second, because Gelsemium straddled medicine and poison, laymen might easily use it to harm others. By restricting its access, Sun tried to prevent such malicious misuse. Contemporary sources echoed Sun’s concern. According to an eighth-century statute of medical practice, private families were forbidden to possess Gelsemium. The government tightly controlled the access of the toxic herb to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.

Figure 3. Gelsemium root preserved in the house of Shosoin in the Todaiji  Temple in Nara, dated to the eighth century. The roots are 0.5-2.0 cm in diameter and 17-24 cm in length. Image courtesy of the Imperial Household Agency website.
Figure 3. Gelsemium root preserved in the house of Shosoin in the Todaiji
Temple in Nara, dated to the eighth century. The roots are 0.5-2.0 cm in diameter and 17-24 cm in length. Image courtesy of the Imperial Household Agency website.

This begs the question whether the plant was actually used as a medicine. At the high level of the society, this is likely the case. The evidence came from a precious collection of medicines preserved in the Todaiji Temple in Nara , donated by the Empress Dowager Komyo in 756 as a gesture of benevolence. Because of the vibrant cultural interaction between China and Japan at the time, many drugs of Chinese origin travelled eastward. Gelsemium was one of them (Fig. 3). It is possible that the herb reached Japan as an item of exchange between the two imperial courts that appreciated its medicinal value.

Figure 4. Drug substitution in a seventh-century manuscript from Dunhuang (P. 3731). The recipe of the “Ointment of Illicium” is highlighted by the blue box. The arrow points to the note, written in small characters, that specifies the substitution of Phytolacca for Gelsemium. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France (Gallica).
Figure 4. Drug substitution in a seventh-century manuscript from Dunhuang (P. 3731). The recipe of the “Ointment of Illicium” is highlighted by the blue box. The arrow points to the note, written in small characters, that specifies the substitution of Phytolacca for Gelsemium. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France (Gallica).

In the local community, the situation is different. We get a clue from a seventh-century manuscript from Dunhuang, a town located in the far west of the Tang Empire on the Silk Road. The manuscript contains miscellaneous recipes, many for external application. One, called “Ointment of Illicium,” merits our attention (Fig. 4). It closely resembles Sun Simiao’s recipe that I showed above, but with an important variation: it doesn’t use Gelsemium. Underneath the ingredient Phytolacca (danglu 當陸), we find an explanation: “The original recipe uses Gelsemium. Nowadays it cannot be obtained, so one uses Phytolacca to replace it.” We can posit why this happened, given Gelsemium’s habitat in southern China, that is, far away from Dunhuang and its restricted access to commoners, as explained earlier. By contrast, Phytolacca was a local herb whose medical function substantially overlapped with that of Gelsemium, making it a reasonable substitute for the distant, unattainable plant.

This example of drug substitution is telling. Compared to social elites, lay people in local communities faced the challenge of limited medical resources. Consequently, they sought alternative options. The rise of authoritative texts at the imperial center thus went hand in hand with its fluid transformation as it moved in various geographical and social domains. Medical knowledge, upon transmission, was destabilized, begetting varied practices in society.