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The Geography of Ginseng and the Strange Alchemy of Needs

Shigehisa Kuriyama, Harvard University

Of all the plants in the pharmacopoeia of traditional Chinese medicine, none may be as widely renowned and highly treasured as ginseng. For most of the past, the plant was found only in Korea and Manchuria. Starting in the early eighteenth century, however, the geography of ginseng underwent marked transformation, both through discovery and transplantation. My paper will first examine the process of discovery and transplantation, then pursue the surprising web of consequences that followed from the plant’s spread. The modern history of ginseng, I shall show, is a global tale that entwines the fates of different Asian countries not only with each other, but also with Europe and North America, and is itself entwined with substances as disparate as tea and opium, kombu, salt, and MSG.


Shigehisa Kuriyama is Reischauer Institute Professor of Cultural History and chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University. Professor Kuriyama’s research explores broad philosophical issues (being and time, representations and reality, knowing and feeling) through the lens of specific topics in comparative medical history (Japan, China, and Europe). His recent work includes studies on the imagination of strings in the metaphysics and experience of presence; the visceral fear of excrement in Western medicine; the transformation of money into a palpable humor in Edo Japan; the nature of hiddenness in traditional Chinese medicine; and the surprising web of connections binding the histories of ginseng, opium, tea, silver, and MSG. He currently serves on the Faculty of Arts Sciences Standing Committee on IT, the Advisory Committee for the secondary PhD field in Critical Media Practice, and is a Senior Researcher at Harvard’s metaLAB.

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