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Making “Mongolian” Nature: Medicinal Plants and Qing Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century

Carla Nappi, University of British Columbia

The sound of a phoenix song steals your ears the way a beautiful girl can steal your heart. Nightingale meat can cure a scratchy throat. There are five-colored pigeon feathers that will make you see demons if you fan them through the air. We learn this paging through the Mdzes mtshar mig rgyan, a Tibetan text full of directions on healing human bodies with Mongolian materia medica. Its author, ‘Jam dpal rdo rje (1792–1855), lived much of his life in several languages, and peppered his text with terms in Manchu, Mongolian, Tibetan, and Chinese, some of the main scripts of Qing empire. The Mdzes mtshar mig rgyan introduces the natural history and medicinal uses of hundreds of natural substances. Through categories such as gems and stones (divided into those that can and cannot be melted), earths (naturally-occurring and manufactured), salts, secretions, and several groupings of plant- and animal-based materia medica, the text presents each object with a combination of Buddhist precepts, quotations from classical Tibetan medical works, images, recipes, exposition, and names in many languages. Focusing on the botanical knowledge gathered in the Mdzes mtshar mig rgyan, this talk will situate the text within the broader history of Qing botany and empire. In addition, it will consider the opportunities and challenges of periodizing the Qing within a global history of eighteenth century imperial botany.

Carla Nappi is Associate Professor of History and Canada Research Chair of Early Modern Studies at the University of British Columbia. Her first book, The Monkey and the Inkpot: Natural History and its Transformations in Early Modern China (Harvard, 2009) was a study of belief-making in early modern Chinese natural history through the lens of the Bencao gangmu (1596), a compendium of materia medica. Her current research is inspired by an attempt to understand what it has looked like throughout early modernity for people to decide that something was equivalent or identical to something else. To begin to chip away at this enormous question, she is pursuing a number of projects that explore ways that various sorts of bodies and ideas about them emerged from practices and contexts of translation in the Ming and Qing.

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