Illustrations of four poisons inVerified and Classified Materia Medica (Zhenglei bencao, 11th century).
Source: Library of Congress

Healing with Poisons: Potent Medicines in Medieval China offers a cultural history of poisons as healing agents in the formative age of Chinese pharmacology (200–800 CE). Challenging a widespread view that contrasts the benign naturalness of Chinese herbal remedies with the dangerous side effects of Western synthetic drugs, my book underscores the centrality of poisons in healing practices in medieval China. Chinese doctors relied heavily on powerful substances, such as mercury and the highly poisonous herb aconite, that they themselves recognized as potent, or du 毒, and strategically deployed them to cure illness and enhance life. As the first book-length study in English of poisons in China, Healing with Poisons stresses the importance of material practices in Chinese medicine that have been understudied by previous scholarship.

This book foregrounds three empirical arguments in three parts. Part I highlights the crucial role of technological intervention in harnessing poisons in Chinese pharmacy. Doctors in medieval China were keenly aware of how the effect of any given substance varied greatly depending on how it was prepared and deployed. As a result, they developed a set of techniques, such as dosage control, combining with other ingredients, and drug processing, to ensure the safe use of poisons.

Part II reveals how the administration of poisons facilitated empire-building. During the Sui and early Tang periods (seventh and eighth centuries), the state established medical institutions, promulgated legal codes, and commissioned pharmacological texts to regulate poisons and standardize drug knowledge in order to achieve effective rule. Local communities, on the other hand, transformed such knowledge in their medical practice according to the availability of resources and their specific needs, sometimes defying the state’s own purpose.

Part III links the perceived power of poisons to the experience of the body. In Daoist alchemy, the ingestion of potent minerals, with the lofty goal of transforming the body and achieving immortality, often induced violent sensations, which prompted different, even opposing interpretations among alchemists and physicians. The avid debates about these signs of the body reveal how poison culture in medieval China was entangled with religious aspirations.

Conceptually, Healing with Poisons underscores the fluid materiality of drugs that defied stable categorization. Whether a substance was a poison or a medicine, I argue, depended on the techniques of its preparation and usage, its assigned political and social values, and the sensations it induced on a particular body. The book not only recovers lost ways of thinking of poisons in medieval China but also reshapes our understanding of toxicology and pharmaceutical practice today by challenging the misconceived dichotomy between Chinese and Western medicine. It brings a heightened awareness of the paradoxical nature of drugs: with anything we consume, be it aconite or chemo pills, ginseng or vitamins, we introduce a foreign agent—hence, in a broad sense, poison—into our body. A medicine’s potentials for curing and harming are always entwined. Ultimately, what truly matters is not the fixed essence of a substance, but how we understand it, experience it, and prescribe its uses in society.

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.

A list of 32 aromatics from a 7th-century Buddhist scripture (Sutra of Golden Light). Dunhuang manuscript S.6107.
Source: British Library.

My second book project, tentatively titled Scent from Afar: A Transcultural History of Aromatics in Medieval China, explores the circulation of aromatics (xiang 香) along the Silk Road, the local integration of imported knowledge, and the history of smells. A case study of a transcultural history of saffron (yujinxiang) in premodern China will be published in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies in 2022.

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