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Chinese Medicinal Excrement

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Is There a Buddhist Influence on the Use of Animal Excrement-Based Recipes in Medieval China?

image of Asian Medicine

The use of medicinal excrement, of which there is some evidence under the Han, increased significantly in the Tang Dynasty. Many recipes, recorded in the Dunhuang manuscripts and in scholarly literature, are based on animal excrement. First, we want to show that this increase is due to the influence of foreign medicines, mainly Āyurvedic medicine and, second, that Buddhism played a key role in this development. By comparing Indian medical sources, Chinese manuscripts from Dunhuang (which was a privileged site for the transfer of knowledge), Chinese texts of scholarly literature, and Buddhist sources, the role of Buddhism in spreading the use of medical excrement can be observed. Buddhism first exerted an ethical influence through the idea of compassion for beings suffering from illness, which then led to the search for first-aid remedies that were cheap and easy to procure, especially in the natural environment, such as the feces of domestic animals. The notion was then conveyed that, beyond the tension between pure and filthy, no remedy is vile and every substance can be a remedy, an idea that can be traced back to Āyurvedic medicine and that is embedded in the story of the model Indian physician, Jīvaka. Finally, the circulation and distribution of animal fecal recipes (here we have taken the example of cow dung) follows the passage of Buddhism from India to China as does the dissemination of such remedies. Thus, we show that Buddhism was a catalyst and a vector for the transmission and transfer of knowledge on medicinal excrement.

Affiliations: 1: National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations Paris


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