Healing with Poisons
Potent Medicines in Medieval China
- PUBLISHED: June 2021
- SUBJECT LISTING: Asian Studies / China, History, Health
- BIBLIOGRAPHIC INFORMATION: 276 Pages, 6 x 9 in, 7 b&w illus., 1 map, 3 tables
- ISBN: 9780295748993
- Publisher: University of Washington Press
At first glance, medicine and poison might seem to be opposites. But in China’s formative era of pharmacy (200–800 CE), poisons were strategically deployed as healing agents to cure everything from chills to pains to epidemics. Healing with Poisons explores the ways physicians, religious devotees, court officials, and laypeople used powerful substances to both treat intractable illnesses and enhance life. It illustrates how the Chinese concept of du—a word carrying a core meaning of “potency”—led practitioners to devise a variety of techniques to transform dangerous poisons into efficacious medicines.
Recounting scandals and controversies involving poisons from the Era of Division to the early Tang period, Yan Liu considers how the concept of du was central to the ways people of medieval China perceived both their bodies and the body politic. Liu also examines a wide range of du-possessing minerals, plants, and animal products in classical Chinese pharmacy, including the highly poisonous herb aconite and the popular arsenic drug Five-Stone Powder. By recovering alternative modes of understanding wellness and the body’s interaction with potent medicines, this study cautions against arbitrary classifications and exemplifies the importance of paying attention to the technical, political, and cultural conditions in which substances become truly meaningful.
Healing with Poisons is freely available in an open access edition thanks to TOME (Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem) and the generous support of the University at Buffalo Libraries.
Authors & Contributors
Yan Liu is assistant professor of history at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Healing with Poisons contradicts the romantic fallacy of viewing traditional medicines as toxin-free remedies and proposes a new scope to reconceptualize the poisons used in medieval China. His study inspires us to rethink the relationships among drugs, cultures, and human bodies in the past and present.- East Asian Science, Technology and Society
Liu writes with an accessible, clear and inviting voice. It will prove to be excellent material for teaching in cross-cultural contexts... This nimble and accessible book will surely lay the foundation for more adventurous studies to follow.- Social History of Medicine
Based on a comprehensive study of the most significant Chinese texts, Liu offers a clear exposition for advanced students and specialists of the development of these medicines and provides a list of some of the most important drugs and their uses.- Choice
Scholars will find this fascinating exploration of Chinese pharmacology a pleasure to read, with short, well-structured chapters and a coherent arc to the argument throughout.- Journal of Asian Studies
Liu Yan offers a most remarkable and so far uniquely informative account of the social, economic, political and structural context of medicine and pharmaceutical learning and practice in China in the first millennium CE.- Monumenta Serica
Beautifully written, this book makes a major contribution to Chinese medical history.- Marta Hanson, Johns Hopkins University
Blows the lid off the myth that Chinese medicine is the opposite of Western medicine in every conceivable regard, showing that medieval Chinese doctors not only treated acute illnesses but also commonly used potent drugs, fully aware of the potential to damage the health of the body.- Miranda Brown, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor