[SYLLABUS] History of Food in China

HH2031 History of Food in China Syllabus

2nd year undergraduate course covers Chinese food from Yao to Mao, and into East and SE Asian Diaspora. Begins with session on critical terms, and full lesson on Bourdieu.

The “Food with Footnotes” assignment has students each bring in one food over the course of the semester, in teams of 3 or 4.  Students provide a brief presentation on the history of the food, and justify why it’s relevant to the topic for that week.  The entire class  samples the food  while listening to their argument.  Students provide a 6-item bibliography for the presentation, share research items online for others to use.

Students have been blogging, writing poetry and making videos about Chinese food.  Check it out here.

They also respond on Facebook to the weekly course content here.

Transmission of drug knowledge in medieval China: A case of Gelsemium

Syndicated from https://recipes.hypotheses.org/8065

One striking feature of classical Chinese pharmacy is the abundant use of toxic substances. Prominent examples are aconite, arsenic, and bezoar. Fully aware of the toxicity, or du, of these substances, Chinese doctors developed a variety of methods to prepare and deploy them for therapy. How was such knowledge produced in medieval China? And how did it migrate from one space to another? Here I use several medical documents from the seventh century to address these questions, focusing on gouwen 鈎吻 (Gelsemium), a highly toxic herb growing in southern China (opening image).[1]

The seventh century is a crucial moment in the history of Chinese medicine. The favorable political environment of early Tang dynasty (618-755) fostered the flourishing of medical ideas and the formation of a number of influential texts. One of them is the Newly Revised Materia Medica (Xinxiu bencao 新修本草, 659), the first state-sponsored pharmacological text produced in China. Compiled by more than twenty court officials, the text reflects the government’s effort to standardize medical knowledge. Gelsemium is one of the 850 drugs in the book (Fig. 1). Defined as warming, pungent, and highly toxic, the root of the herb could cure, among others, wounds inflicted by metal weapons, ulcers, swelling, and convulsion. The authors also stressed the great danger of the herb by showing that drips squeezed from one or two leaves would suffice to kill a person. But not a goat. Quite the contrary, its sprouts could make the animal grow large. It must be, the authors mused, the case that everything in the world submits to something else.

Figure 1. The entry of gouwen (Gelsemium) in the Newly Revised Materia Medica (659).
This copy of the text is from Dunhuang (P. 3714), dated to 667 or later. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France (Gallica).

Gelsemium was also embraced by doctors at the time. Sun Simiao 孫思邈 (581?-682), one of the most famous doctors in Chinese history, incorporated the drug into his Essential Formulas Worth A Thousand in Gold for Emergencies (Beiji qianjin yaofang 備急千金要方, 650s). The toxic herb appears in nineteen prescriptions in the text, primarily for topical treatment. In one case, Sun presented a formula called “Ointment of Gelsemium” to treat toxic swelling, pain and numbness in the limbs, ulcers, weak feet, among other conditions. At the end, he warned: “This formula should not be given to vulgar people. Be cautious.”

Why did Sun keep the formula away from vulgar people, a term probably referring to commoners? Two possible reasons. First, handling Gelsemium was a delicate matter. Due to its high toxicity, any misuse of the herb could result in dire, if not lethal, consequences. Commoners may not possess the proper knowledge of deploying the herb, hence they should refrain from taking this formula. Second, because Gelsemium straddled medicine and poison, laymen might easily use it to harm others. By restricting its access, Sun tried to prevent such malicious misuse. Contemporary sources echoed Sun’s concern. According to an eighth-century statute of medical practice, private families were forbidden to possess Gelsemium. The government tightly controlled the access of the toxic herb to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.

This begs the question whether the plant was actually used as a medicine. At the high level of the society, this is likely the case. The evidence came from a precious collection of medicines preserved in the Todaiji Temple in Nara, donated by the Empress Dowager Komyo in 756 as a gesture of benevolence. Because of the vibrant cultural interaction between China and Japan at the time, many drugs of Chinese origin travelled eastward. Gelsemium was one of them (Fig. 2). It is possible that the herb reached Japan as an item of exchange between the two imperial courts that appreciated its medicinal value.

Figure 2. Gelsemium root preserved in the house of Shosoin in the Todaiji
Temple in Nara, dated to the eighth century. The roots are 0.5-2.0 cm in diameter and 17-24 cm in length. Image courtesy of the Imperial Household Agency website.

In the local community, the situation was different. We get a clue from a seventh-century manuscript from Dunhuang, a town located in the far west of the Tang Empire on the Silk Road. The manuscript contains miscellaneous formulas, many for external application. One, called “Ointment of Illicium,” merits our attention (Fig. 3). It closely resembles Sun Simiao’s formula that I showed above, but with an important variation: it doesn’t use Gelsemium. Underneath the ingredient Phytolacca (danglu 當陸), we find an explanation: “The original formula uses Gelsemium. Nowadays it cannot be obtained, so one uses Phytolacca to replace it.” We can posit why this happened, given Gelsemium’s habitat in southern China, which is far away from Dunhuang, and its restricted access to commoners, as explained earlier. By contrast, Phytolacca was a local herb whose medical function substantially overlapped with that of Gelsemium, making it a reasonable substitute for the distant, unattainable plant.

Figure 3. Drug substitution in a seventh-century manuscript from Dunhuang (P. 3731). The formula of the “Ointment of Illicium” is highlighted by the blue box. The arrow points to the note, written in small characters, that specifies the substitution of Phytolacca for Gelsemium. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France (Gallica).

This example of drug substitution is telling. Compared to social elites, lay people in local communities faced the challenge of limited medical resources. Consequently, they sought alternative options. The rise of authoritative texts at the imperial center thus went hand in hand with its fluid transformation as it moved in various geographical and social domains. Medical knowledge, upon transmission, was destabilized, begetting varied practices in society.


[1] This illustration of gouwen (Gelsemium) is from a late sixteenth-century pharmaceutical text (Buyi leigong paozhi bianlan, 1591). Reprint from Buyi leigong paozhi bianlan, ed. Zheng Jinsheng (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe, 2008), vol. 1, 241.

An Old Problem in Indian Medical History Revised

Original guest post by Kenneth Zysk (University of Copenhagen)

I this paper I should like to revisit a problem in the history of Indian medicine, which is yet to find a satisfactory resolution. The issue centres on when and where Āyurveda came into existence and from where all or part of it could have derived, in a word, the origins of Āyurveda.

The Origins of Āyurveda

At the core of classical Āyurveda stands the aetiological theory of the three doṣas (tridoṣa), broadly defined as defilements of wind (vāta), bile (pitta), and phlegm (kapha). Disease is said to occur when for one or several reasons one or more of the doṣas moves from its seat to manifest someplace else in the body. On the surface of it, since the theory includes three well-defined Sanskrit terms, occurring together, it would seem to be a straightforward exercise to trace this transparent mode of thinking in Indian literature prior to the earliest medical treatises, in which the theory was first fully expounded. However, such has not been achieved and at present two opposing theories have been put forth for the origins of the three āyurvedic doṣas.

One maintains that the theory was wholly indigenous to the subcontinent, being embedded in early ideas of four of the five basic elements (mahābhūta): fire (agni) which characterises bile (pitta) and wind (vāyu), universal form of bodily wind (vāta); and perhaps also water (āp) and earth (pṛthivī), which characterise phlegm (kapha). The fifth element, space (ākāśa) is the realm of sound and does not easily fit to one of the doṣas. Sometimes it is paired with five to give bile. This analysis, however, occurs in the second level compilation found n Vāgbhaṭa’s seventh century Aṣṭāṅgahṛdaya Saṃhitā. It is also the point of view of most Indian scholars, while the other, advocated mainly by western scholars, posits that the theory is related to, if not dependent on, Greco-Roman medicine, since in its fundamental conceptual basis, Sanskrit doṣabears a similarity to Greek chymos, which gives rise to the four humours of black bile (melaina cholē), yellow bile (xanthē cholē), phlegm (phlegma), and blood (haima). While blood (rakta) is not counted in the list of three doṣas, Meulenbeld has shown that blood was considered in the same way as the doṣas in the classical Āyurveda.[1]The only missing pairing between Greek-Roman and Indian medicine is the doṣacalled “wind,” which was not one of the humours, but Greek pneumalike Sanskrit prāṇais found in a medical context.

Although Sanskrit doṣaoccurs in its original meaning of “defilement” or “fault” from the period of the early Upaniṣads (c. 800 BCE), its specific medical sense is first expounded in the Sanskrit treatises of Caraka and Suśruta. The medical notion of doṣacould not have come from nowhere, but from where and how.

Putting aside the two opposing points of view, I shall began afresh, starting with an examination of old literary sources in Sanskrit and working my way forward to the first systematic and composite treatises, the Carakaand Suśruta Saṃhitās, which date from around the first centuries before and after the Common Era.

Vedic Medicine

An early form of medicine was represented in the Vedic Saṃhitās from about 1300-800 BCE. Among these primarily religious treatises, there was no single text devoted exclusively to diagnosis and treatment of illness and malady; but rather randomly placed charms and incantations in verse were embedded in the earliest treatises of the Ṛgvedaand Atharvaveda for use in rituals to heal the sick and the suffering. The lack of a single text or texts dedicated to the subject of medicine indicated that healing was part of the overall socio-religious matrix in the earliest Sanskrit literature. On the other hand, only in its broadest underlying conceptual basis does a form of healing utilising incantations and rituals occur in the earliest āyurvedic treatises, especially in the context of maladies affecting children. Moreover, no direct linguistic parallels exist between the Vedic and āyurvedic incantations. This naturally implies that the āyurvedic aetiology of the three doṣas together with the extensive list of remedies based on it could not have derived solely from the medical theories and practices found in the early Vedas.

It must naturally also come from somewhere else. Could then part of the overall conceptual basis have derived from beyond the orbit of the Indian subcontinent, as several early western scholars of Indian medicine maintained? To try to answer this question, we must take the next histoical step and examine the literary sources composed between the Vedic hymns and the earliest medical works. My study therefore included an investigation of the later Vedic treatises of the Brāhmaṇas and Upaniṣads and the literature related to them. A deep study of these texts is still a desideratum, since I merely surveyed the principal texts. The cursory examination of them, however, revealed that there was little in the way of medicine that differed from that found in the Vedic Saṃhitās; and, moreover, there were still no individual texts devoted exclusively to medicine, with the exception of the formulation of the five bodily winds.

Although not a book per se, the fixed group of five bodily winds (apāna, prāṇa, vyāna, samāna, udāna) is a well-established idea that evolved from yogic practices involving breath control or prāṇāyamafirst mentioned in the early Upaniṣads and later picked up and medically altered by the early āyurvedic authors.[2]  The occurrence of the doctrine of the five bodily winds in the medical treatises is simply not enough information to establish the later Vedic literature as the principle and only source for the three doṣas, and therefore it was not a viable place for further investigation. I turn my attention rather to a more promising literature, not in Sanskrit but in the Middle Indic language of Pāli, in which the earliest Buddhist scriptures were composed.

Buddhist Medicine

The Monastic Code or Vinaya Piṭaka of the Buddhist Pāli Canon contained a large section devoted to medicines, along with numerous references to healing theory and practice throughout the earliest parts of the Canon, which probably took shape some centuries before it was written down in Sri Lanka in about 29 BCE. This would place the Buddhist medical doctrines historically immediately prior to and contemporaneous with the earliest āyurvedic treatises.

In summary, these sources revealed the following major points. Already in Pāli Buddist literature there is found:

  1. a presumed understanding of the idea of the three doṣas;
  2. a practical approach to healing indicated in case histories and remedies;
  3. a legend of a famous healer, Jīvaka, which has travelled with Buddhism throughout Asia; and
  4. a clearly defined role of the healing arts in the early Buddhist monastery or Saṅgha.[3]

The content of the Buddhist medical theories and practices points to an important intermediate step in the evolutionary history of Indian medicine from Veda to Āyurveda. Moreover, the medical knowledge was preserved and transmitted not by composers and proponents of Brahmanic doctrines and beliefs, but by knowledgeable and literate ascetics living what appeared for the most part to be a mendicant’s lifestyle. The study of early Buddhist medicine made the Sanskrit tradition that was maintained and transmitted by the Brahmans, even a more unlikely source of early āyurvedic theories and practices.

But, does the Buddhist involvement in early Indian medical history bring us closer to finding the origins of Āyurveda? Only in so far as it localises elements of what later became āyurvedic medicine outside the Sanskritic orbit of brahmanic knowledge. Moreover, it shows that the aetiological tridoṣic theory was already well formulated by the time of earliest Buddhist scriptures. The “smoking gun” that provides the precise origin of the doctrines of Āyurveda is still wanting. So, for time being, we shall have to admit that a direct transmission from one medical text to another may never be found and moreover might never have occurred. Some might say “well then give it up and move on to something else.” I preferred, however, to be more creative and widen the sphere of investigation.

I started to look to other systems of thought and practice that are related but not central to medicine. These include systems of knowledge found in the Indian astral science or Jyotiḥśāstra, especially those parts that have some connection to medicine, such as the divinatory system of human marks or physiognomy.

Although these studies are ongoing, they so far indicate that at least part of the āyurvedic system of medicine in India was shared with other systems of Indian knowledge, which indicate also influence from non-Indian forms of thought in antiquity. Three important points come forth, which show

  1. a literary link between information in the early Sanskrit medical treatises and early Sanskrit astral literature;
  2. a fundamental similarity to systems of physiognomy from ancient Mesopotamia and from ancient Greece; and
  3. a possible dual role played by the Indian doctor as healer and diviner.[4]


Perhaps we shall never find the precise origins of the āyurvedic theory of the three doṣas and the methods of the cures based on it, but we have come closer to identifying possible, viable places to search for additional information. Moreover, I have become more and more convinced that we should not expect to find a single text or group of texts from which the early Sanskrit medical treatises were translated or on which they were based. Rather we should consider Āyurveda as a medical system that evolved under the influence of fruitful exchanges of important theories and practices of different kinds of healers, such as Jīvaka in the Buddhist legends. It is likely that the exchange continued for centuries at a time when contacts between different healers were possible. This would imply that the interaction was constant and lasted long enough for intellectual exchange and practical learning to take place and be recorded. For the time being, this is perhaps the more realistic approach to the origins of Āyurveda, which could allow us to speculate that the tridoṣa theory resulted from assimilation and adaption, where a Greco-Roman conception of the four humours blended with Indian philosophical notions of the three guṇas or qualities (sattva, rajas, and tamas) and thenfive basic elements (mahābhūta), both of which were well-known among proponents of Sāṃkhya, with whose philosophical notions the composers and compilers of the classical medical texts were conversant. The precise means by which the assimilation took place could indeed be a fruitful topic of exploration.


Meulenbeld, G. J. 1991. “The Constraints of Theory in the Evolution of Nosological Classifications: A Study on the Position of Blood in Indian Medicine (Āyurveda);” in G. J. Meulenbeld, ed. Medical Literature from India, Sri Lanka and Tibet (Leiden: E. J Brill): 91-106.

Zysk, K. 1991. Asceticism and healing in ancient India. Medicine in the Buddhist monastery. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. Paperback: New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991. Indian edition: Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1997, reprint, 2000. [Vol 2 of Indian Medical Tradition]. Second revised edition under preparation.

______________, 1993. “The science of respiration and the doctrine of the vital breaths in ancient India,” JAOS, 113.2: 198-213.

______________, 2000. “”Did ancient Indians have a notion of contagion?”  in Lawrence I. Conrad and Dominik Wujastyk, eds., Contagion. Perspectives from Pre-Modern Societies(Aldershot, UK: Ashagate), 79-95.

______________. 2007. “The bodily winds in ancient India revisited.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.): 105-115.

______________. 2016. The India System of Human Marks. Text, translation, and notes. 2 Vols.  Leiden: E.J. Brill [Sir Henry Wellcome Asian Series, Vol. 15].

______________ 2018. “Greek and Indian Physiognomics.” Journal of the American Oriental Society,138.2: 13-325.


[1]Meulenbeld 1991; cf. Zysk 2000.

[2]Zysk, 1993 and 2007.

[3]Zysk, 1991. I am happy to report that a revised, second edition of this study should be out soon with Motilal Banarsidass.

[4]Zysk 2016.1: 25-53; Zysk 2018.

Understanding Efficacy (yan) in Tang China

When I explain my research on Chinese medicine to my colleagues and friends these days, one question they often ask is “Does it work?” I must confess that as a non-practitioner, I cannot offer firsthand testimony to this question. Yet as a historian, I found much vigorous discussion of the issue in medical writings and beyond. People in the past, it seems, were as keenly interested in therapeutic efficacy as we are today.

The standard Chinese word for efficacy is yan 驗 or xiao 効/效. In premodern sources, it carries a strong sense of “having been tested.” The word started to appear in the titles of medical works during the Six Dynasties (220-589), especially in the genre of “formula books” (fangshu 方書). The bibliographical records of the official histories offer us the following examples: “Personally Tested Formulas” (shenyan fang 身驗方), “Collected Tested Formulas” (jiyan fang 集驗方), and “Efficacious Formulas” (xiaoyan fang 效驗方).[1] What were the criteria to consider a formula effective is unclear, yet it is evident that medical writers at the time paid attention to the therapeutic outcomes of their remedies.

To further understand yan, I now turn to a formula book in early Tang titled “Essential Formulas Worth a Thousand in Gold for Emergencies” (Beiji qianjin yaofang 備急千金要方, 650s), written by the famous physician Sun Simiao 孫思邈.[2] The book contains thirty scrolls organized by the types of illness. In each scroll, Sun starts with a theoretical discussion of the illness, expounding its causes, symptoms, and bodily dynamics. This is followed by a large number of formulas that treat the illness, ranging from single-drug therapies to enormous prescriptions that use as many as 64 ingredients. Altogether, the book includes a massive number of 4,200 formulas.

In general, Sun follows a set structure in the writing of each formula in his book. He starts with the name of the formula, often with the typical symptoms associated with the illness. He then lists all the ingredients in the formula, specifying the dose for each one. Finally, he advises on how to prepare and administer the medicine. Intriguingly, the formula sometimes ends with the confirmation of the efficacy of the prescription, presented in short phrases such as “numinously efficacious” (shenyan 神驗), “extremely good” (shenliang 甚良), “having efficacy” (youxiao 有效), and “as if to pour hot water onto snow” (rutang woxue 如湯沃雪). These “efficacy phrases” are terse, generic, and formulaic, which probably carry more rhetorical force of boasting the value of the formula than serving as evidence of the remedy’s actual usage.[3] Likely, Sun incorporated certain formulas from earlier sources, including these set phrases, without inserting his own voice. Efficacy was an artifact of copying.

Besides these generic phrases, Sun also offers more specific accounts to show the efficacy of some of his formulas, as exemplified by 25 medical cases spread throughout the book. Significantly, Sun was the first person in Chinese history who included medical cases in formula books, manifesting physicians’ rising consciousness of using personal experience to validate the efficacy of medicines during the Tang.[4]

In general, each medical case in Sun’s book appears at the end of a formula where Sun presents a specific situation to testify to the efficacy of the remedy. These cases contain some or all of the following components: time, place, the identity of the physician, the identity of the patient, diagnosis, prescription of the formula, and the therapeutic outcome. In what follows, I present three cases to show different meanings of yan in Sun’s writing.

Case 1: To cure the illness of dragon (jiaolong bing 蛟龍病)

On the eighth day of the second month of 586, someone ate celery and became sick. The symptoms of the person resemble those of bloated abdomen, with the face turning bluish yellow. Upon ingesting cold food and strong sugar, the patient spat out a dragon with two heads and a tail. Greatly efficacious.[5]

The case confirms the efficacy of a food remedy to eliminate a pathological animal inside the body. Sun did not identify who the patient was; he only used the generic phrase “someone” (youren 有人) to refer to him or her, which implies that he had no direct experience of the event described. He may have heard of the story from others and felt the need to include it in his book to validate the formula. Efficacy was disembodied knowledge bolstered by word of mouth.

Case 2: To cure sudden turmoil of abdomen (huoluan 霍亂)

During the Wude period (618-626), a virtuous nun named Jingming had this illness for a long time. Sometimes the illness erupts once a month; sometimes more than once a month. Every time the illness erupts, she almost died. At the time, great court physicians such as Jiang Xu and Gan Chao failed to recognize the disorder. I treated it as sudden turmoil of abdomen and prescribed this formula, which cured her. I thus isolate and record the formula.[6]

Unlike the first case, Sun directly involved in treating the patient. This case particularly emphasizes Sun’s ability to offer correct diagnosis. Revealingly, Sun contrasts his superb skills with the clumsiness of the court physicians, which is a strategy that he uses regularly in his book to elevate his status as a superior healer. Sun’s effective treatment of the patient implies that he had an excellent understanding of the symptoms of the illness and the rationale of the formula. Efficacy was based on personal experience guided by reasoning.

Case 3: To cure sores caused by the urine of earwigs (qusou chong niao 蠼螋蟲尿)

In the sixth month of a year during the Wude period (618-626), I contracted this illness and felt oppressed at the heart after five or six days. I tried other methods to treat it but to no avail. Someone taught me to draw the shape of the bug on the ground, take the soil enclosed by its abdomen, mix it with saliva, and smear the paste onto the sores. It cured me immediately.[7]

This is an example of self-healing, which appears frequently in Sun’s medical cases (10 out of 25 cases). The physician regularly tried medicines on himself and used his experience as compelling evidence of a formula’s efficacy. After recounting the case, Sun confesses that “myriad things under the heaven resonate with each other, and I do not fathom the reason.” Despite this, he cherished the formula because of its undeniable efficacy.

We find a similar sentiment from another case where Sun tried a panacea called the powder of daphne (yuanhua san 芫花散), a massive formula consisting of 64 ingredients. Physicians at the time did not sanction the use of the medicine, yet upon trying it, Sun found it “numinously efficacious” especially for treating emergencies. He then muses:

“I then realize that the efficacy of numinous things is not bound by common rules. The highest principle and the resonance [between things] cannot be understood by intellect. … This is without understanding why it is so—even sages cannot discern the reason.”[8]

What is striking here is Sun’s ready recognition of the inadequate understanding of why the medicine works (buzhi suoyiran 不知所以然). Yet as long as it could effectively save lives, Sun found no reason not to include it in his collection. Efficacy was based on personal experience without doctrinal understanding.

To sum up, we encounter a wide range of meanings of efficacy in Sun Simiao’s formula book. It could be simply a copying artifact manifesting the physician’s respect for past knowledge, or word of mouth without direct observation, or attestation based on firsthand experience, or therapeutic success even devoid of understanding the logic behind. In Sun’s text, he juxtaposes these various presentations of yan without establishing a clear hierarchy. The new phenomenon of integrating medical cases into formulas in the 7th century, though, does indicate the fledgling effort of using experience, especially personal experience, to verify the efficacy of remedies.

Which brings back the question I raised at the beginning: Does Chinese medicine work? Well, it depends on a miscellany of factors, as Sun Simiao’s text reveals. To be clear, 7th-century China is very different from our world today: physicians during Sun’s time did not identify themselves as an autonomous, well-defined, and institutionalized social group; they competed with diverse types of practitioners in society such as ritual therapists, drug peddlers, and itinerant healers to gain the trust of patients. Their authority, unlike that of modern doctors, was not a given, but something to strive for. If our understanding of therapeutic efficacy today is heavily informed by scientific evidence and the approval of professionally-trained doctors, we see a different set of criteria used by Sun to promote his formulas and establish his authority. Therefore, what we can learn from Sun’s writing is not just a more open, inclusive way of perceiving efficacy but also to understand efficacy as characterized through a dynamic process that ties to text, experience, and the building of a healer’s identity.[9]

[1] Suishu 隋書 [Book of Sui], juan 34.

[2] For more information on Sun Simiao, see https://www.happygoatproductions.com/sun-simiao-

[3] On “efficacy phrases,” see Claire Jones, “Formula and Formulation: ‘Efficacy Phrases’ in Medieval English Medical Manuscripts,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 99, 1998: 199-209.

[4] On the history of medical cases in China, see Christopher Cullen, “Yi’an 醫案 (Case Statements): The Origins of a Genre of Chinese Medical Literature,” in Innovation in Chinese Medicine, ed. Elisabeth Hsu (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 297-323; on the analogous history of medical cases in Europe, see Gianna Pomata, “The Medical Case Narrative in Pre-Modern Europe and China: Comparative History of an Epistemic Genre,” in A Historical Approach to Casuistry: Norms and Exceptions in a Comparative Perspective, eds. Carlo Ginzburg and Lucio Biasiori (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), 15-43.

[5] Beiji qianjin yaofang, juan 11.

[6] Ibid., juan 20.

[7] Ibid., juan 25.

[8] Ibid., juan 12.

[9] For more discussion on the issue of efficacy in Chinese medicine, see Nathan Sivin, “The Question of Efficacy,” Asian Medicine, 10(1-2), 2015: 9-35.

Biohacking in China, circa 1915? Or Skipping Breakfast to Save the World?

Intermittent fasting is trending these days. News articles about it are proliferating, celebrities are endorsing it, and the Internet is replete with beginner’s guides to different forms of this way of eating. Its proponents say that it promotes weight loss, lowers insulin levels, and normalizes blood pressure. Others warn that it can be dangerous—for those with a history of disordered eating, for example, or pregnant women. But the enthusiasm radiating from blogs and fitness websites is hard to ignore. Nor is this enthusiasm confined to American pop culture: jianxiexing duanshi 间歇性断食 is attracting attention in the Sinosphere as well.

Source of image: https://www.taiwannutrition.com/blog/intermittent-fasting/. Accessed August 5, 2019.

Trendy though it is today, the idea is hardly new . I’ve been reading Chinese and Japanese books from the early twentieth century, and I came across one that radiates very similar enthusiasm for very similar advice: Jiang Weiqiao 蔣維喬’s On Skipping Breakfast for Health and to Prevent Aging (健康不老廢止朝食論). I’ll just call it On Skipping Breakfast from here on, for simplicity. This book claims that by eating only two meals per day, one slightly before noon and one in the early evening, anyone can improve his health and extend his lifespan. Following this advice, it says, can strengthen cases of weak nerves and prevent conditions such as depression, diabetes and obesity, constipation, and even cholera and typhoid. And, as if that weren’t enough, it gives the eater more time, improves his mental clarity, and makes him more successful in his career. When Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey says that intermittent fasting “helps him save time, stay focused, and sleep better at night,” it’s almost as if he’s quoting Jiang.[1]Or actually, quoting Mishima Kin’ichirō 美島金一郎,since Jiang’s book is a modified translation of a Japanese book published a year earlier.

But On Skipping Breakfast is not just an example of biohacking before Silicon Valley. While Mishima’s original text does celebrate the potential to lighten the body and boost productivity, Jiang’s version has higher aims: his ambition is to “arrive at a world of great harmony” by promoting moderate eating.

When the Commercial Press published the book in 1915, Western scientific ideas about eating were beginning to permeate China. Increasingly, diets were defined, measured, and quantified as the concepts of calories, vitamins, and minimum daily requirements took root. Underpinning much of this knowledge was a conviction that Western diets were superior to what people ate in East Asia. Scientists as well as political and cultural leaders decried Chinese diets as deficient—in proteins, in calories, in micronutrients and in just about every other way. Modernizers in China, like those in other weak countries, wanted their people to adopt what Rachel Laudan has called the “power cuisine” of the West, a high-calorie feast featuring meat, wheat, and dairy.[2]The goal was to create a taller, stronger, and generally more “fit” population that could better compete in the nations’ struggle for survival.

On Skipping Breakfast, though, approaches the question of national diet very differently. It’s not that Jiang rejects modern knowledge. By choosing to translate Mishima’s tract in all its scientistic glory, Jiang demonstrates his fascination with then-current physiological and anatomical ideas. The body described in this book is clearly the body of Western science, not the one of classical Chinese medicine: it has blood but no qi, yingyang (營養, the neologism “nutrition”) but no yin 陰 or yang 陽, and a mind-hosting brain instead of a heart-mind (xin 心), among many other marks. The book revels in mechanistic descriptions of digestion and excretion. But Jiang harnesses these ideas to a very different goal from the usual one of bulking up to better compete.[3]

Jiang Weiqiao, from his book 因是子靜坐法 (Shanghai: The Commercial Press, 1922). Available through Hathi Trust.

In a preface added to Mishima’s original text, Jiang affirms the Darwinian premise that all living beings are locked in a struggle for survival. But his response sounds like a Buddhist one:

“if there were a way to make living things able to not rely on food to live, then their conflict and killing one another perhaps could be stopped. If there were a way to … make living things return and not be reborn and not die … [t]he conflict and mutual killing could forever not be aroused.”

Unfortunately, he writes,

“there is not yet a good method of not eating. So we will use eating in moderation to save [people]. When there have been generations who have practiced healthy, anti-aging [practices like these] for a long time, this can build up their self-cultivation and produce wisdom, and engrave the truth of no-rebirth.”[4]

Here the goal is not to win the competition but to transcend it. Rather than improving their stock by eating more animal protein and calories, nations can improve their moral essence by eating in a disciplined and economical pattern. Jiang’s perspective echoes not only Buddhist ideals but also Daoist practices like abstaining from grain. It resonates, too, with what Chinese medical classics say about moderating what you eat and drink.

Despite (or perhaps because of) its ties to traditional culture, On Skipping Breakfast clearly remained a contrarian piece. China did indeed absorb Western “power cuisine.” A century later, the attendant problems of a calorie-dense diet heavier in meat, wheat, and dairy have cropped up there, including rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. No wonder, then, that these days intermittent fasting is attracting attention in Chinese societies too. Today, though, you’re less likely to hear about its potential to save humanity.

[1] Aria Bendix and Julia Naftulin, “Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey says he eats only one meal a day and fasts all weekend,” Business Insider April 12, 2019 (https://www.businessinsider.com/jack-dorsey-intermittent-fasting-diet-risks-2019-4)

[2] Rachel Laudan, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 255-257.

[3] Hilary A. Smith, “Skipping Breakfast to Save the Nation: A Different Kind of Dietary Determinism in Early Twentieth-Century China,” Global Food History vol.4, no.2 (2018): 152-167.

[4] Jiang Weiqiao, Jiankang bulao feizhi zhaoshi lun [Skipping Breakfast for Health and to Prevent Aging] (Taipei: Xin wen feng, 1980), author’s preface 2 and 5.