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  • Know Your Remedies: Pharmacy and Culture in Early Modern China by He Bian
  • Carol A. Benedict (bio)
Know Your Remedies: Pharmacy and Culture in Early Modern China By He Bian. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020. Pp. 264.

Know Your Remedies is a vibrant social and cultural history of the Chinese pharmacy. It challenges the tenacious view, posited by Joseph Needham some fifty years ago, that Chinese science and technology surpassed European innovations prior to 1600 but declined precipitously thereafter. Rejecting narratives of scientific stagnation in seventeenth-century China, He Bian details wide-ranging transformations in Chinese approaches to knowledge of the natural world from the late Ming (circa 1550–1644) through the early and high Qing (1644–1800)—specifically around the practice of pharmacology. She argues that this period saw [End Page 244] the emergence of a type of early modern Chinese pharmaceutical knowledge that was distinct from, but parallel to, epistemological changes underway in Europe. Her work thus brings fresh insights to a growing body of literature that revises an earlier narrative of a singular scientific revolution occurring only in Europe, replacing it with a more sophisticated understanding of multiple early modern epistemologies—all divergent from their own medieval antecedents—that emerged across Eurasia at roughly the same time.

While He Bian demonstrates that developments in Ming-Qing China were an essential part of early global modernity, she also emphasizes that Chinese pharmaceutical knowledge regarding the healing properties of various flora and fauna followed a trajectory that differed significantly from European natural history investigations. In six substantive chapters, she traces the sociopolitical, economic, and cultural exigencies internal to China that gave rise to the distinctive Chinese pharmacopeia. From the seventh to the thirteenth century, pharmaceutical orthodoxy was defined by successive ruling dynasties, largely through the production of state-sponsored bencao (materia medica). The imperial court also required that exotic drugs gathered from localities across the empire be presented as tribute. Under Ming rule (1368–1644), state control over formularies loosened, a shift that allowed for the proliferation of privately published pharmaceutical texts written in a variety of genres. The sixteenth-century institution of a monetized surtax on medicinal products in lieu of tribute stimulated commercialized interregional trade in pharmaceuticals that intensified in the seventeenth century.

During the eighteenth century, the Qing (1644–1912) turned away from state-sponsorship of pharmacopeia altogether and delegated the procurement of medicinal drugs for use in the imperial court to merchants, thereby cementing the commodification of all pharmaceuticals. The continued expansion of long-distance regional and global trading networks facilitated the rise of specialized urban pharmacies that catered to Chinese consumers. The importation of exotic new remedies such as shark fins, bird nests, and American ginseng in turn generated new knowledge, paving the way for the modern sensibilities to come. He Bian argues that the Chinese pharmacy, which continues to be a key component of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as practiced in contemporary China today, is thus not a timeless or monolithic tradition held over from the ancient China but is in fact a product of China's dynamic early modern era.

Know Your Remedies not only excavates the early modern origins of the Chinese pharmacy, it also employs innovative methods of book history to document the authorship, transmission, and reception of an impressive array of Chinese materia medica. The sheer number of bencao that He Bian has carefully mined is remarkable, as is the erudite way she explains their contents and situates them in specific historical contexts. Moreover, she [End Page 245] provides extensive biographical details about the bencao authors themselves. This achievement required substantial sleuthing in the archives as well as other sources such as local gazetteers, merchant route books, and visual and literary materials. The study is also anchored in a deep and comprehensive bibliography of secondary scholarship (in English, Chinese, German, and Japanese) on the history of science and medicine in late imperial China (1368–1911), the social and cultural history of Ming-Qing China, and the global history of early modern science, technology, and medicine more broadly. Exquisitely researched, well-argued, and accessible, the book will be of value not only to East Asian specialists but also...


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