He Bian – Pharmacological Interpretation and the Use of Antiquity: Rethinking the Scholastic Turn in Seventeenth Century Chinese Materia Medica

March 7, 2013
On Thursday, March 7thScience Center 469 from 6 pm, He Bian, graduate student in our department, will give a talk titled “Pharmacological Interpretation and the Use of Antiquity: Rethinking the Scholastic Turn in Seventeenth Century Chinese Materia Medica".
As usual, there will be food and drinks, and the talk will start at about 6,15/6,20 – please RSVP to savoia@fas.harvard.edu
My actors in this case were a small group of 17th-century scholars working and publishing in the field of materia medica, known as pen-ts’ao in Chinese. Their works received scant attention in previous historiography of Chinese science and medicine, primarily because they advocated for a return to the earliest canon, <Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica>, and claimed that truth must be recovered from the early text untainted by later influence.  Historians saw their efforts in reconstructing and interpreting the ancient classics as a reactionary move away from the previous model, in which progress was measured by a steady accretion of knowledge toward medicinal virtues of natural and manmade substances. Their theoretical frameworks also did not break away from older cosmologies.
Once we look closer at this body of medical scholarship, however, worship for the antiquity itself would no longer be sufficient in explaining why some of the most learned and competent physicians and scholars saw paramount importance in the ancient classic of materia medica and set out to recover it in their writings and practice.  I argue that instead of an end in itself, the revival of early classics in materia medica also served the practical purpose of rendering the scholastic practice of pharmacological hermeneutics easier---that is to say, returning to the shorter classic text helped scholars and theory-minded practitioners reduce the sheer scope of symbols they were obliged to manipulate. The real goal, which derived from a larger context of late Neo-Confucian philosophy, was to understand the nature of things by elucidating the mechanism of pharmacological efficacy and articulating it in written discourse.  In the case of materia medica, antiquity never posed as a pre-existing entity for people to worship; rather, it was actively collected, remade and then appropriated to meet the very contemporary needs of the seventeenth century.