At first glance, medicine and poison might seem to be opposites. But in China’s formative era of pharmacy (200–800 CE), poisons were strategically deployed as healing agents to cure everything from chills to pains to epidemics. This talk explores the ways physicians, religious devotees, court officials, and laypeople used powerful substances to both treat intractable illnesses and enhance life. It illustrates how the Chinese concept of du—a word carrying a core meaning of “potency”—led practitioners to devise a variety of techniques to transform dangerous poisons into efficacious medicines. Recounting scandals and controversies involving poisons from the Era of Division to the early Tang period, I demonstrate the centrality of du to how people of medieval China perceived both their bodies and the body politic. By recovering alternative modes of understanding wellness and the body’s interaction with potent medicines, this talk cautions against arbitrary classifications and exemplifies the importance of paying attention to the technical, political, and cultural conditions in which substances become truly meaningful.
Yan Liu is an assistant professor in History at SUNY, Buffalo. He obtained his PhD in History of Science at Harvard University in 2015, and was an Andrew Mellon postdoctoral fellow at the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto from 2015-16. He specializes in the cultural history of medicine in premodern China (the first millennium CE), with particular interests in the material culture of medicine, the history of the body and the senses, religious healing, and the global circulation of medical knowledge. His first book, Healing with Poisons: Potent Medicines in Medieval China, will be published by the University of Washington Press in June 2021.