Elixir, Urine and Hormone: A Socio-cultural History of Qiushi (Autumn Mineral)

In: East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine
Jing Zhu
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Traditional Chinese medicine has attracted the attention of pharmacologists because some of its remedies have proved useful against cancer and malaria. However, a variety of controversies have arisen regarding the difficulty of identifying and explaining the effectiveness of remedies by biomedical criteria. By exploring the socio-cultural history of qiushi (literally, ‘autumn mineral’), a drug prepared from urine and used frequently throughout Chinese history, I examine how alchemy, popular culture, politics and ritual influenced pre-modern views of the efficacy of the drug, and explore the sharp contrast between views of the drug’s function and efficacy in the context of Chinese medicine and contemporary biomedical knowledge. Questioning the biomedical hypothesis that qiushi contains sex hormones, I find that the popular, centuries-long use of qiushi correlates with the efficacy of what has been called ‘the meaning response,’ the merging of alchemy and medicine, the influence of social relations, and the division and mixture of theory and practical use.

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