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Medicináis: Numbers and Classification

A total of around 398 entries appear in my tables of medicináis (not counting synonyms and several completely unidentifiable items, which would bring the total to approximately 416). This does not translate to 398 species, because there are entries for generic things (dung, soil) and some entries that cover several species of plants that seem similar and were apparently used similarly. In some cases we are not sure which species was actually used in the HHYF and thus include data for two or three similar ones. Actual numbers of species involved are impossible to state because we have not identified or confirmed all the identifications. (Hus team came up with some identifications that do not seem to check out with the reference books and need further research. Given that Hu and her team are leading scholars in this specific area, while the reference books are old and often very general and not well checked, it is probable that in all or almost all cases the books are wrong and Hu is right.)

We have about 302 entries for plants, 69 for animals, and 27 for minerals, with an unknown number of species involved. The animal and mineral substances are not much used. In fact, animal drugs barely appear at all, and when they do, it is often in recipes that are more magical than practical. It is quite clear from context, to say nothing of other Chinese texts throughout history, that the Chinese knew the difference. They would not have had the same concept of magic versus scienceas a modern biomedical doctor, but countless comments in the medical literature show that the realm of spirit mediums, street pitchmen, and folk magic workers was a different one from that of serious doctors and druggists. I observed this in rural Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s.

The terms in the HHFY often refer to genera that comprise several medicinally used species, so 302 plant entries means more species than that to consider. It is often impossible to determine which species of a widely distributed, widely used genus—Astragalus or Ferula, for example—would have been available to the Mongol court. Moreover, the Chinese often used a Chinese plant name to translate an Arabic one; usually they got the genus right—they found a plant of the same genus, with, one hopes, the right drug properties— but sometimes they were very wrong. As an extreme example, they managed to confuse saffron with gardenia, because the Chinese names were similar. Moreover, sometimes the Persian or Arabic names are ambiguous; shitaraj normally refers to Lepidium latifolium, and surely does herein, but the same word is used in India for Plumbago rosea, utterly different in appearance and properties.

Spices and herbs abound in the HHYF, and indeed most of the prescription formulas include some. This is to be expected, since, as medicine specialists knew even before Theophrastus and Dioscorides, herbs and spices do have medical activity, often a great deal (Billing and Sherman 1998; Moerman 1998). Some, such as mint (menthol and other volátiles), aloe vera, and artemisia, continue to be used in contemporary biomedical practice.

Plant families that are abundantly represented include the Apiaceae (the celery and fennel family), Brassicaceae (cabbages and mustards), Fabaceae (beans), and Lamiaceae (mints). This is true of medicinal herb lists all around the Northern Hemisphere, for instance in indigenous and pioneer-settler North America (see Moerman 1998, here and for what follows) and in Mongolian folk medicine (Bold 2009 and my own field research). The Piperaceae (black pepper and relatives) and Zingiberaceae (ginger, turmeric, galangal) also show up frequently. Conversely, again as in North American data, Aster-aceae (asters and sunflowers) appear less frequently relative to their incredible abundance in the regions involved. The Poaceae (grasses), the most common of all in numbers of individuals on the steppes, are hardly represented at all (there are a very few). The Cucurbitaceae (gourds), Rosaceae (rose relatives), and many minor families are in between, with a few major drugs from each.

The biomedical fact is that the chemicals that apiaceous, brassicaceous, and lamiaceous plants use to fight off pests and predators are also effective against things that bother humans. We seem to have evolved with them and developed an ability to thrive on their toxins instead of summarily dying. By contrast, the many and rich chemical defenses of the Asteraceae are strangely less valuable to us, although a goodly number of the Asteraceae still make it into the HHYF and into Chinese and Mongol medicine. Wormwoods, a large asteraceous genus, are a major exception; mentioned abundantly in all medieval herbals, they are very important medically today. Grasses generally figure as the least useful large family, because their defenses are mechanical—quick growth and silica granules in the leaves—rather than chemical. Yet a fourth possibility is represented by members of the buttercup, nightshade, and some other families. These have chemicals often intensely toxic to humans but of considerable medical effect. These families are well represented in the HHYF.

It is striking to note how many of the plants in the HHYF are still used today and proven by biomedical research to have actual value. (My database of HHYF remedies, with summaries of major herbal sources from the west and China, is available on request.)

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