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Reviewed by:
  • L’aconit et l’orpiment: Drogues et poisons en Chine ancienne et médiévale
  • Francesca Bray
Frédéric Obringer. L’aconit et l’orpiment: Drogues et poisons en Chine ancienne et médiévale. Penser la Médecine. Paris: Fayard, 1997. 329 pp. Tables. F 150.00 (paperbound).

The Chinese character du (“poison”), which links the different sections of Frédéric Obringer’s fascinating and accessible study, denotes “that which is [End Page 485] toxic,” but also “that which is pharmacologically active.” According to the canonical Shennong bencao jing (Classic of materia medica), composed in the first century a.d., nontoxic drugs nourish the vital forces and prolong life, but toxic drugs are required in order to attack disease. The majority of Chinese drugs were considered to possess some degree of toxicity, ranging from mild to violent. Highly toxic drugs like aconite were considered especially effective in dispersing accumulations (which hindered the healthy passage of vital energy and bodily fluids) and in treating demonic possessions or attacks by wind; aconite was included in 615 of the 6,272 prescriptions in the compilation of a.d. 752 entitled Waitai biyao (Prescriptions of the external terrace) (p. 121 and table 3). The dosage of such powerful drugs had to be very carefully calculated if they were to cure and not kill the patient. By the Song dynasty (960–1279), when Obringer’s study concludes, learned physicians were more inclined both to disdain such explanations of disease as demonic possession, and to avoid the use of violent drugs where possible. Although poisons continued to be used in medicine, their role became less prominent.

Another physiological effect of certain poisons, particularly minerals, was that they enhanced vitality. “Cold-eating powders”—concoctions of various mineral and plant drugs, which generally included arsenical salts—were extremely fashionable at court and among literati in medieval China. The powders were said to cure certain indispositions such as lassitude, but they also produced powerful or even fatal side effects; since poisons induce heat, anyone taking them had to rest, to bathe repeatedly in cold water, and to take quantities of cold food (hence the powders’ name) as well as large amounts of alcohol. Obringer debates whether these powders should be considered addictive in modern terms, since their ingestion produced moments of extraordinary lucidity or insight, and seems to have been habit-forming; it also ruled out regular work. The powders were very popular among medieval Taoists, poets, and recluses; in later, more austere periods, however, the cold-powder eaters were reviled as irresponsible and lubricious, for the poisons were considered to enhance sexual powers (in Chinese physiological terms, a natural consequence of increasing general vitality).

The link between poison and unbridled sex resurfaces in Obringer’s consideration of gu poisons. Poison is generated by heat and accumulates in closed spaces and the creatures that dwell in them. Gu poisons were said to be concocted by collecting several poisonous creatures—snakes, spiders, scorpions, and millipedes—and placing them in a closed jar, where one would kill and absorb the poisons of the others. The owner of the deadly creature would have it spit into the food served to visitors, and the poison would eat away their vitals; their property would then mysteriously come into the possession of the gu owner. During the early Han dynasty, in the first century b.c., some ten thousand people were accused of using gu witchcraft to plot against the emperor, and were executed. Gu witchcraft was subsequently included in the legal code as a crime punishable by death or exile. As so often with witchcraft, gu poisoning was what others did: it was associated with women, and with non-Chinese. As Han Chinese polities gradually expanded into the torrid regions of the south, the fear of poisonous miasmas and snakes was augmented by the elaboration of an image of [End Page 486] southern tribes whose alluring women tempted upright northerners into their villages, where they would poison and rob them.

This splendid study of poison in China illuminates a web of epistemologies and practices that connect life and death, poison, fire, and dangerous women. Obringer convincingly connects the evolving...

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