A striking feature of traditional Chinese medicine, perhaps against our common knowledge, is its regular use of poisons. For example, one of the most frequently deployed drugs in China was aconite (fuzi), a highly toxic herb. Why did poisons figure prominently in traditional Chinese pharmacy? What contributed to their therapeutic value? And how does a study of poisons teach us about medieval Chinese society? Probing the roots of this tradition from the third to the tenth century, when the major outlines of Chinese toxicology took shape, my talk examines the centrality of poisons to the practice and theory of medicine in China with special attention to a variety of techniques that transformed poisons into medicines. Moreover, it explores how poisons altered the body in Daoist alchemical practice and how this knowledge shaped the medical understanding of toxic substances. I also highlight the complexity of drug materiality that defied stable categorization. Whether a substance was a medicine or a poison, I contend, always depended on the method and context of its usage, the bodily experience it induced, and its perceived value in society. This study seeks to not just unveil an important yet ignored history of Chinese medicine, but also bring fresh insights into the paradoxical nature of drug therapy in our own life.
Dr Yan Liu is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Jackman Humanities Institute.
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