Research Projects

Medical Commodities and Pharmaceutical Knowledge in Early Modern Japan

(Funded under Small Project Funding Scheme, The University of Hong Kong)

Principal Investigator

Daniel Trambaiolo, Post-doctoral Fellow, Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences
(Remarks: Dr. Daniel Trambaiolo left the Institute and joined School of Modern Languages and Cultures, HKU from October 1, 2015.)

Total Fund Awarded

HKD 52,387

Project Duration

March 2014 – August 2015

Project Description

This research examines the origins of the modern East Asian herbal medicine industry in the early modern period, when the transformation of traditional herbal remedies into globally traded commodities triggered fundamental shifts in the ways these remedies were used. It will show how the emergence of commercial networks stimulated the development of pharmaceutical knowledge, and analyse how the commodity character of medicinal substances — their status as objects of market exchange — depended on the distribution of knowledge among producers, merchants, and consumers. Through its exploration of these issues, it will offer new insights into early modern East Asian society and economy and contribute to broader theoretical and comparative discussions concerning the relationships between science and society in the early modern world. The East Asian medical tradition was born in China, but historians are increasingly coming to recognize the significant ways this tradition became transformed as it spread from China to the countries of the East Asian periphery (Vietnam, Korea, and Japan). Wide variations in climate and ecology meant that many plant species that were readily available in China could be obtained elsewhere only through trade, and these peripheral cultures were thus important sites for the early commoditisation of East Asian herbal medicines. The diffusion of medical knowledge to the periphery encouraged the development of commerce in medicinal substances, and this commerce in turn stimulated the development of new forms of pharmaceutical knowledge needed for determining the authenticity of imported drugs and the potential value of local substitutes. This research project will take advantage of the unusually rich surviving source materials available for studying the economic and cultural history of medicinal substances in early modern Japan, analysing the relationship between the drug trade and the new cultures of scientific investigation that emerged in Japan during the early modern period, and showing how shifts in the distribution of knowledge led to changes in market relationships. Specifically, it will aim to answer the following questions:

  • What were the structures of the commodity chains and trading networks linking the production and consumption of herbal medicines?
  • How did the distribution of pharmaceutical knowledge among different groups within early modern Japanese society shape commerce in locally produced and imported medicines?
  • How did the discovery of new production and processing techniques alter the nature of the medical economy?
  • How did imported European drugs and medical ideas become incorporated into existing commercial exchange networks and systems of medical knowledge?

By addressing these questions, this work will develop a novel account of how early modern East Asian medical cultures emerged through the establishment of new relationships between economic activity and pharmacological investigation.