Drugs in Asia

Mapping Drugs across Epistemic and Geographic Domains in Early Medieval China

Michael Stanley-Baker, Shih-Pei Chen, Qun Che


Mandala of Plants and Minerals surrounding Medicine Buddha

This project investigates the distribution of materia medica across Daoist, Buddhist and Medical texts up until the year 589, a timeframe which encompassed the highest activity of religious actors in the medical marketplace.  It developed new digital tools to data mine these sources and answer the question: “Who knew, what, when and where?” Searches for the location of 12,000 drug terms produced granular results showing which materia medica occurred per chapter and in what frequency. Sorting of these results according to the authorship, sectarian identity, genre and geographic site of origin of the texts, provides a hitherto unavailable overview of the varied expertise within different sects and communities over time and space. This methodology is repeatable for different term collections, and thus can be used to situate other kinds of knowledge, for example pantheons, acupuncture points, architectural terms, astronomy &c.

To further confirm the statistical searches, we marked up 200 of the most salient drug chapters, those which contained 20 drug terms or more.  These mark ups include geographic data, recipe segmentation, drug properties and disease terms among others. These markups can be used to research the regionalism of drug lore, to compare changes in understanding and use of individual drugs across knowledge regimes, and to identify representative sets of commonly used drugs in different religious sects.  It further changes the chronology in the history of pharmacology, by providing much earlier dates for the entry of South and Central Asian drug knowledge into China.