Tracing the movement of medicines across space, language and time.

Persian Translation of De Materia Medica by Diascorides, (1595, India)
Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore

Materia medica

Medicinal substances, or medical drugs, travelled across regions, communities and time. In each new context, they were differently understood and given different names, making it difficult for historians to track their movements. Please visit A Plant for the End of the World to learn more about how early Daoists understood the value of Atractylodes, and how it straddled domains we might consider religious and medical.

Whether as magical substance or natural product, as dispellers of demons, or winds or fevers, as emblems of the power of local knowledge or as rare exotics from far off lands, materia medica were volatile, potent substances, which carried important cultural meanings and transformed local medical practice and knowledge.

Because of their material nature, as physical objects which can be passed from hand to hand, materia medica offer a rich opportunity to compare medical systems. Not only can we compare how different traditions understood the same objects in different ways, they also offer insight into transmission across these traditions. Through identifying when they cross borders into different communities of knowledge, we can better understand how they were received, what influences they exerted, and how they were transformed along their journeys.

Cultural Ecologies

The meaning and usage of different drugs was significantly transformed by the communities who used them (known as communities of practice). These communities were bound by language, institutions, by texts that they read. They were bound (and divided) by social class, by ideology (whether political, religious or intellectual), and by cosmology. These communities existed in different physical environments, such as urban centres and courts, monasteries, rural villages and towns, or mountain retreats. These contexts, and the diversity of forces within them, together make up Cultural Ecologies. In these environments some materia medica thrive, and others do not survive, whether or not they are native, or introduced to the region.

Tools for Digital Research

The goal of this Digital Humanities project is to develop new digital tools to compare and contrast the use of materia medica in different communities in early imperial China. They allow us to search for large clusters of terms, such as drug names, and then provide detailed meta-data about where these terms concentrate. By analysing these results, we can gain a snapshot view of which communities knew about which drugs, and get a better sense of the distribution of health care practices across different communities. In the example project, we built a database of Buddhist, Daoist and medical texts from across the Six Dynasties period (220-589 CE) and searched for materia medica.

An overview of the project and the rationale for these tools can be found here: New Tools to Study Ancient Drugs,
And a consideration about what it means to Situate drug knowledge in China.
A position piece, 2015 Mapping Drugs across Epistemic and Geographic Domains: A case study for Early Medieval China.
The published results of our study, with links to datasets and distribution graphs, can be found here.

Data Mining the Buddhist and Daoist Canons
This video lecture gives an overview of scholarly questions and digital tools for the study of pre-modern Chinese texts. It discusses the combined use of Docusky, MARKUS and Palladio to track the distribution of term clusters in the Daoist and Buddhist Canons.

If you want to learn more with a hands-on approach, please follow this link for a hands-on tutorial for DocuSky here. This blog teaches you how to search an online Daoist Canon, attach metadata results, and visualise them in Palladio.

In general, the project approaches the problem of Situating Knowledge in two ways: Primary Sources and Plant Names

Primary Sources

White Chrysanthemum, Bencao gangmu. Wellcome Images

The project provides high quality, citable transcriptions of identified manuscripts from known libraries. In addition to providing them as transcribed, searchable text in the primary source language, it also provides them in a form that allows for digital analysis.

This takes the form of highly structured, or segmented, documents with richly encoded information about the provenance of the text, or meta-data. Researchers can use this format to perform massive term searches, for example for the location of thousands of drug terms, and then perform fine analysis of the source texts’ date, genre, sectarian affiliation, regional provenance and others.

These results can be analysed and visualised using Social Networking Analysis, to perform macro-scale summaries of term distributions. At the same time, scholars can also refer back to individual passages, and perform close reading of the source texts. In this way, scholars can navigate the micro and macro scales of large corpora of texts to discover where knowledge lies, and how it is situated in its various locations.

Online Corpora

These are developed in DocuSky, an innovative database tool developed for Sinological research, and now being adapted for more languages. To date we have posted:

DAOBUDMED6D. This contains over 3,0000 Chinese sources across Buddhist, Daoist and medical genres from the pre-Imperial period up through the end of the Six Dynasties in 598. Housed in a DocuSky format, these are available for corpus-level analysis. A robust metadata for the texts and other useful files can be found here. Once the corpus is searched, metadata can be used to visualise the distribution of the vocabulary, mapping it out across different genres.

Collected Commentaries on the Materia Medica provides a densely marked-up edition of the 5th Century Bencao jing jizhu 本草經集主. GIS markups in the text can be used for other purposes, such as showing the relationship between the early drug market and local ecology, or comparing the geographic spread of herbs in a given drug text.

In the Pipeline

Emergency-Preparedness Recipes to Keep Close at Hand 葛仙翁肘後備急方
An 8-chapter text of recipes edited by multiple hands, dating to the early fourth century. The text is marked and prepared, we are currently (as of July 2021) doing some last cleaning up before posting with DocuSky. You can download our current working edition here, and upload to DocuSky yourself for testing. Let us know what you think!

Full Zhengtong Daoist Canon
We are experimenting with preparing a full Zhengtong Daozang 正統道藏 in Docusky, based on the edition online at Kanripo, with metadata according to Schipper & Verellen’s catalogue.

Chinese Academy of Traditional Chinese Medical Sciences Corpus
The academy has hand-typed over 390 pre-modern and recent texts using from the highest quality manuscripts, block print and lithograph editions. The corpus has over 30 million characters and is tagged for over 30 categories of tag types. We are curating these into a DocuSky corpus, and will further tag the drug names with synonymy codes, enabling them to be linked out to online databases about geographical distribution, botanical identity and molecular contents.

Drug Identification: Historical Plant Synonymy

The key problem to working across languages is how to associate native drug terms with material objects. Plant botany is an ever-changing target, and many ethnonyms cover different ranges of species than Linnaean terms. The evidence for historical attributions of scientific species to historical ethnonym is even more fraught with complexity as identities of plants changed over time, and with the long-used practice of substitution for local varieties.

This project provides an authority database, which allows researchers to trace the source of attribution. Drawing largely on Kew Garden’s Medical Plant Names Services, it augments that list in the first instance with over 30,000 alternate names for Chinese drugs, transcribed in pinyin and simplified characters. We also keep data about their geographic distribution and their date of first citation. These plant names will be linked to other plant name services, such as the International Plant Name Index (, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (, as well as databases with the latest phytochemical research on plant bioactivity, such as SYMMAP and SuperTCM. In this way, historians, practitioners and ethnopharmacologists will be able to link from primary sources of pre-modern Chinese texts, to the bioactive compounds in the materia medica.

Many contemporary data sources are normative, that is, they single out only one botanical species to correspond to one single ethnonym. The Historical Plant Synonymy will be descriptive, that is it will provide multiple botanical attributions to a given ethnonym, and provide the sources for those attributions. The Synonymy is envisioned in the long run to accommodate three kinds of sources: modern dictionaries, secondary scholarship, and polyglot primary sources. All three types will be referenced in the database, and we will allow for further expansion in the future.

Polyglot Medicines Project

The Polyglot Medicines, supported by the Singapore National Heritage Board, will parallel the Chinese Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences corpus, which a set of transcribed Malay language medical manuscripts. We have already posted an online transcription software which converts between the two transcription methods for Malay: Jawi, based on Arabic writing, and Rumi, based on the Latin alphabet. We will use the synonymy so that we can compare how the same botanicals were used in the two traditions. We have also collected sets of Peranakan mixed-language family medical recipes.

The site will also host ethnographic interviews of Singaporean practitioners describing how they use traditional herbs. This project also includes ethnobotanical data from modern field research on the island of Alors, near East Timor with the Abui people. We envision developing a means for linguists and anthropologists to publish their medicinal plant name data so that it can be linked to historical, primary sources.

This sub-project is generously funded by the Singapore Heritage Board, Research Grant 92.90.


The initial phase was conceptualised an designed at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, where we developed these technical tools and data with this project team.
Funding for further phases of the project has been generously provided by:
Nanyang Technological University SUG: M4082222 
Singapore Ministry of Education RG69/18 (NS)
Taiwan Ministry of Science and Technology MOST106-2221 -E – 00 2-209-MY2C
Taiwan Ministry of Education  大學校院新南向計畫─強化與東協及南亞國家合作交流: 跨國醫藥知識的數位人文研究」工作坊暨數位人文應用種子培訓營計畫

This project is the result of extensive and generous collaboration with the staff at the National Taiwan Centre for Digital Humanities Research.