Sour and Bitter Blended in the Soup of Wu:* Very Early Chinese Herbals

For years, I’ve been carting around a number of books about Chinese medicine and food, fascinated by the ancient linkage of food with medicine (similar in some regards to the Ayurvedic system of India).

As you can imagine, getting down to the bone on this matter is not an easy proposition, given the lack of fully accessible written material for non-Mandarin speakers. The inability to read the original texts proves to be a huge drawback to pursuing questions in the proper manner decreed by scholars.* And what translations do exist often disappoint, as in the words of Imre Galambos:**

Most of the modern translations of these works are medically oriented and follow the traditional interpretation of these works, completely disregarding the historical development and philological background. Instead of a precise translation of passages, the translator “reads in” modern, Chinese or Western, ideologies into the original text, destroying the creditability of the translation and depriving the Western reader from an unbiased and authentic reading of the text.

But that caveat aside, through some stellar secondary sources, it is possible to get some sense of what was happening culinarily in China at various times in history, when western Europeans were still likely gnawing raw meat and shivering in tanned animal hides.

Emperor Shen Nung

Shen Nung Pen Ts’ao Ching, based on 5000-year old medicinal Chinese knowledge begun by emperor Shen Nung (2696 B.C.), considered today as the oldest accessible material on Asian herbal medicine, classifies 365 species of roots, grass, woods, furs, animals and stones. People passed down the knowledge orally for centuries until someone wrote down the information. The Oracle Bones, engraved with early writing around 1200 B.C., recorded herbal remedies as well as a multitude of other worldly and spiritual observations.

Another medical book that mentions herbs is the Huang Di Nei Jing (Su Wen) – “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine.” Differing opinions date the book between 800 B.C. and 200 B.C.

Apothecary Chest Drawers

This earlier Chinese literature included lists of prescriptions for specific ailments, many later compiled into a manuscript called “Recipes for 52 Ailments”, found in the Mawangdui (“Horse King Mound”) tomb, sealed in 168 B.C. Two hundred silk manuscripts appeared in this tomb, most of which concerned medical knowledge, along with a well-preserved female corpse and thousands of funerary objects invaluable to scholars.

Not surprisingly there’s a large body of poetry filled with food analogies and references, beginning with the Chou period:

O soul, come back! Why should you go far away?
All your household have come to do you honour; all kinds of good food are ready:
Rice, broom-corn, early wheat, mixed all with yellow millet;
Bitter, salt, sour, hot and sweet: there are dishes of all flavours.
Ribs of the fatted ox cooked tender and succulent;
Sour and bitter blended in the soup of Wu;
Stewed turtle and roast kid, served up with yam sauce;
Geese cooked in sour sauce, casseroled duck, fried flesh of the great crane;
Braised chicken, seethed tortoise, high-seasoned, but not to spoil the taste;
Fried honey-cakes of rice flour and malt-sugar sweetmeats;
Jadelike wine, honey-flavoured, fills the winged cups;
Ice-cooled liquor, strained of impurities, clear wine, cool and refreshing;
Here are laid out the patterned ladles, and here is the sparkling wine. (Hawkes, p. 107)

Patterned Ladle

And that led me to several questions: What about cookbooks in ancient China? How do they relate to these herbalist treatises? Who wrote those cookbooks? Who’s written about these things over the centuries?  Who’s writing about those books today? Are any translations available?

Some of the earliest cookbooks surfaced during the Chou (Zhou) Dynasty (1050-256 B.C.).

There’s a reference to Liu Sheng, a prince of the Han Dynasty, buried in 113 B.C. with cookbooks in the tomb, just in case he wanted to make something special on his way to the other world.

Another one of the first cookbooks and a nutrition textbook (both lost) appeared during the T’ang Dynasty. Of books like the T’ang Dynasy Shih Ching (“Food Canons”), Edward H. Schafer writes:

In any case, it would be a mistake to regard these ancient books as cookbooks in the modern sense. They were dietary guides whose paramount purpose was to instruct members of the elite class about the correct preparation of balanced dishes which would not disturb somatic equipoise and might improve the internal climate of the body and so contribute to longevity.

I think Schafer is wrong, because he’s likely thinking of Joy of Cooking or Mastering the Art of French Cooking. He’s not taking into consideration The Virginia House-wife or any of the other scads of books published as late as the nineteenth century with plentiful herbal and medical lore bumping up against recipes for roast beef and pies.

And throughout the Sung dynasty, too, cookbooks showed up, like Ching-k’uei-lu, only to be lost like the T’ang (618-907 A.D.) materials. E. N. Anderson, author of The Food of China (1988) states:

The connection between health and diet was always stressed by Chinese medicine, not least in Sung, and many a recipe book is of medical inspiration. Indeed, much of the elaboration and variety of Chinese cuisine is owed to medicine. The Chinese word fang means both a medical formula and a culinary one, as did the word recipe originally (Rx is short for recipe. (See an alternative explanation for Rx HERE.)

Winged cup, 3rd. century B.C., Zhou Dynasty

Herbals and agricultural manuals grew on the model set by T’ao Hung-Ching and Chia  Ssu-hsieh [who wrote relatively later]…

And as do many people who reflect on food and history, Anderson concludes:

The recommendations of learned [Chinese] pharmacologists must have had an effect on the practices of cooks, whose recipes thus modified came in time to be regarded as authoritative designs for gourmet dishes.

In other words, Chinese haute cuisine became more than just taste and technique. Herbals played a vital role in China, too, just as they did in medieval Europe and later. Perhaps more so.

Just think — those cloud ears, or mushrooms, in that dish of  Mu Shu Pork that you ate last night might literally cure what ails you.


*From “Chao Hun” (“The Summons of the Soul”), translated by David Hawkes, in Ch’uTz’u: The Songs of the South (1959).

** For more on the history of this literature, see Paul U. Unschuld’s Medicine in China: a History of Pharmaceutics (1986), as well as in “The Origins of Chinese Medicine: The Early Development of Medical Literature in China,” by Imre Galambos (1996). See also “Classics of Traditional Chinese Medicine.”

© 2010 C. Bertelsen