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Full Access Origins of a Misunderstanding: The Qianlong Emperor's Embargo on Rhubarb Exports to Russia, the Scenario and its Consequences

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Origins of a Misunderstanding: The Qianlong Emperor's Embargo on Rhubarb Exports to Russia, the Scenario and its Consequences

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image of Asian Medicine

This paper casts light on the myth, current in China before the Opium War, that the Europeans could not survive without rhubarb. The myth has its roots in differences between pharmaceutical theories and material culture in the Chinese and Western traditions. In China, rhubarb was considered a drastic purgative, indicated only in case of grave illness. In the West, in consequence of a specific method of processing, it was regarded as a mild and gentle drug, albeit wonderfully effective in ridding the body of superfluous humoral substances. Thus the same herb acquired completely different images in China and in the West. An important factor that fostered the myth was the Russian government's termination of the rhubarb monopoly in the prelude to the Sino-Russian border conflict in the late eighteenth century. This gave rise to increased smuggling, which was misinterpreted in China as evidence that Russia stood in desperate need of rhubarb. When the border conflict came to an end in 1792, Russia's unusually submissive attitude tended to confirm this misapprehension. This article not only explains why the Qing government adopted an embargo on rhubarb; it also shows how differing pharmaceutical views influenced international affairs.


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