Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to feature the first Points Video Interview today! SHAD co-Editor Dr. David Herzberg interviews Dr. Yan Liu about his new book, Healing With Poisons: Potent Medicines in Medieval China.
At first glance, medicine and poison might seem to be opposites. But in China’s formative era of pharmacy (200–800 CE), poisons were strategically deployed as healing agents to cure everything from chills to pains to epidemics. In Healing with Poisons, Dr. Yan Liu explores the ways physicians, religious devotees, court officials, and laypeople used powerful drugs to both treat intractable illnesses and enhance life. By recovering alternative modes of understanding wellness and the body’s interaction with potent drugs, this book cautions against arbitrary classifications and exemplifies the importance of paying attention to the technical, political, and cultural conditions in which drugs become truly meaningful.
In this interview conducted by David Herzberg, Dr. Liu discusses several topics from his book, including the crucial, but forgotten role of poisons in Chinese medicine during the medieval era, the misconceived dichotomy between Chinese and Western medicine, psychoactive drugs, and the close relationship between poison, witchcraft, and politics in medieval China.
Please watch the full interview below:
Yan Liu is an assistant professor in History at SUNY, Buffalo. He specializes in the history of medicine and pharmacy in medieval China, including the material culture of medicine, religious healing, the history of senses and emotions, and the global circulation of medical knowledge. His first book, Healing with Poisons: Potent Medicines in Medieval China, was published by the University of Washington Press in June 2021 (with open-access edition). His second book project explores the circulation of aromatics (saffron, camphor, etc.) and olfactory knowledge along the Silk Road from the 7th to 13th century.