The tree peony is a flowering plant found in China, and well-known in Britain. Its root cortex is often used in Chinese traditional prescriptions, such as Dahuang mudan tang, Liuwei dihuang wan, and Jiawei shaoyao san. In contemporary Chinese, the tree peony is called ‘Mudan’, and although its beauty was largely ignored until the Kaiyuan era (713‐41 CE), a drug of the same name is mentioned in medical texts of the Eastern Han period (25‐220 CE). The early authoritative materia medica, Xinxiu bencao (659 CE), also describes a plant called ‘Mudan’, but it is different from the tree peony in form. Curiously, although the tree peony is not considered to be native to Japan, it is described as a specialty plant in the early Japanese gazetteer, Izumonokuni Fudoki (733 CE).This study demonstrates that in early texts ‘mudan’ referred to a different plant from the tree peony, and that ‘mudan’ had two remarkable aliases, ‘bailiangjin’ in China and ‘yamatachihana’ in Japan. Today, both aliases are used to refer to Ardisia species. Furthermore, I will demonstrate that the Xinxiu bencao’s description of the Mudan closely matches that of the Ardisia, especially the A. japonica species. My investigations therefore suggest that early prescriptions may have used the Ardisia species, not the tree peony. This raises further questions: when and how did the tree peony come to replace the Ardisia? This paper presents the most likely progression of this transition by tracing the expansion of cultivation of Mudan for ornamental purposes.
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