Mapping the Knowledge of Famine Foods in Late Imperial China


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date17 May 2023


This dissertation presents an interdisciplinary research which takes up material drawn from the history of science, agrarian history, ethnobotany, and print culture in late imperial China on the subject of “famine foods” – a body of knowledge of how to utilize a wide range of edible plants in times of scarcity. Focusing on the printed treatise Jiuhuang bencao (1406), I examine how the knowledge of famine foods was produced, transmitted, transformed, and possibly applied in Ming and Qing China. My research contributes to the understanding of two questions raised by scholars: 1) how did the compilation of Jiuhuang bencao develop the model of official bencao up to the fifteenth century? and 2)how did Jiuhuang bencao influence the theories and practices of famine relief from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century?

With extensive discussion of materials from three scholarly fields, namely bencao (pharmaceutical natural history), huangzheng (famine administration),and nongjia (agronomy),  my findings are organized in two parts. Part I focuses on knowledge production. Jiuhuang bencao re-evaluated the “usefulness” of plants in the bencao taxonomy by highlighting edibility, in order to recognize a large number of underrepresented species in the scholarly inquiry. The use of vision in knowledge making, including collecting specimens, observation and live drawing in a botanical garden and strategies in textual and visual representation of plant forms, was a continuation of rather than departure from the established model of the state-commissioned illustrated bencao. In confirming or challenging the official bencao knowledge, the famine herbal assigned new importance to vision, and reveals the complications involved in the efforts of documenting folk knowledge in a universal and authoritative scheme. Part II moves on to the aspects of knowledge dissemination and application. Jiuhuang bencao introduced new ideas to the existing repertoire of famine-coping strategies and governmental responsibilities that accompanied them. Consequently, its significance for the purposes of famine administration was contested and reshaped by a series of later editions in the 16th and 17th century. The knowledge of famine foods, when integrated into the administrative duties of hunger prevention and disaster relief, was promoted as a means by which to diversify food sources,  underlining in particular the planting strategies for famine prevention. From the late Ming to the end of Qing, the information in Jiuhuang bencao was digested and refashioned in agronomy and famine administration texts to enhance people's sensitivity towards “neglected” wild and cultivated species, knowledge which could readily be translated into concrete policies that aimed to transform people's behaviors in food production.