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Famine Foods in the Early Modern Sinosphere

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Jiuhuang bencao 救荒本草 (Materia Medica for Famine Relief or the Famine Herbal), published in 1406, was the first printed monograph on famine foods in China. The book listed 414 entries of edible plants that could be consumed in times of scarcity, with naturalistic illustrations and detailed texts about plant identification, nutrition, toxicity, and food processing. Appreciated as the bible of famine foods by scholars in late imperial China, it generated over 20 editions of reprints, and got incorporated into the official texts of famine administration since the seventeenth century. Jiuhuang bencao (or Kyūkō honzō in Japanese) also inspired a new genre of similar texts in the early modern Sinophere. In the following centuries, state agents, learned gentlemen (or samurai), philanthropists and naturalists across East Asia composed and distributed many manuals that detailed the names and distribution of edible "famine plants," characterized their physical appearance, and provided preparation instructions in texts and images.

What were the ethnobotanical implications of the category "plants for famine relief" when it was created by Jiuhuang bencao in the Ming dynasty? How was the knowledge of "famine plants" produced and circulated in the form of manuals? What kind of readership were the manuals intended for and what kind of readership did they actually arrive at? The panellists address these questions by analyzing the entries in Jiuhuang bencao, and examining the circulation of the genre of famine plant manuals in Ming-Qing China and Tokugawa Japan. In doing so, the panel discussion aims to probe into the dynamics of knowledge making in the early modern Sinographic world. In addition, digital humanities experts from the MPIWG will comment on the annotated database of Jiuhuang bencao developed by Sarah Huang.

Research Unit / Event Journal/Book Series


TitleFamine Foods in the Early Modern Sinosphere
LocationMax Planck Institute for the History of Science