Skip to main content

Review: Polyglot Asian Medicines

A review of Polyglot Asian Medicines, a project providing digital tools for the interdisciplinary study of Asian medicine, directed by Michael Stanley-Baker

Published onMar 23, 2024
Review: Polyglot Asian Medicines

Polyglot Asian Medicines

Project Director
Michael Stanley-Baker, Nanyang Technological University

A full list of team members is available on the project website.

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Vivienne Lo, University College London

Project Overview

Michael Stanley-Baker

This project provides online digital tools and resources for the interdisciplinary study of Asian medicines.  Recognizing that people from multiple regions and time periods have used multiple languages, knowing styles, and positionalities to engage with Asian medicines, the site provides full-text searchable corpuses of transcribed Malay and Chinese medical manuscripts including some hi-resolution images of the manuscripts. 

These are richly tagged text corpuses (especially 本草經集注 and 葛仙翁肘後備急方) tagged using MARKUS and hosted in DocuSky, which allows for filtering, searching, and classification. Our audience is historians, anthropologists, and practitioners of Asian medicines, as well as biomedical researchers and policy people interested in better integration of traditional medicines and modern health care policy.  The corpuses afford opportunities to identify efficacious molecules for modern biomedical new drug discovery, large-scale, data-based bolstering of the evidence for the efficacy of traditional medicines, and multi-factored historical research into the history of drugs.  

Databases were constructed through long-term collaboration with National Taiwan University’s Centre for Digital Humanities Research, headed by Hsiang Jieh, designed by Tu Hsieh-chang, and managed by Hung Yimei and Hu Qirui. Digital design research was provided by Nanyang Technological University and supported by grants from Germany, Taiwan and Singapore.  Kew Gardens (the leading world authority on plant names) matched our dictionary-sourced plant name data and provided us with up-to-date scientific nomenclature, designing a Neo4j interface to host the synonymy data, serve it, and allow the open-ended exploration of data.

The DrugsAcrossAsia_China corpus is an archival rescue project that conserves and re-formats 392 manuscript transcriptions produced by Liu Changhua 柳長華 of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences. The Kitab-Tibb corpus, headed by Faizah Zakriah, transcribes rare Jawi manuscripts into searchable Rumi text and includes hi-res images of the manuscripts. Melayu drug terms are tagged and link out to the synonymy. Peranakan Family Recipes transcribes recipe slips in Chinese and Baba Malay from one of the oldest families in Singapore. The early pharmacopoeic and recipe traditions are present fully-tagged editions of Bencao jing jizhu 本草經集注 and Zhouhou beiji fang 肘後備急方, and DaoBudMed6d includes all Buddhist, Daoist and medical literature up to 589 CE.

The synonymy, designed by Christopher Khoo, allows users to explore historical drug names, their modern scientific botanical names, and link out to related databases. Using Neo4j they can connect across languages via the botanical species. Four major Chinese drug dictionaries and around twenty Malay drug dictionaries are included.  The botanical identities in these works have been updated by Kew Gardens, the leading medicinal plant name authority in the world. This allows it to link out to other data sources on biodiversity, heritage and biochemical contents of the plants. This is useful for understanding the complexity of plant names and to bridge the different knowledge cultures which engage with these plants. The synonymy also includes the 出處 or first mention of Chinese drugs in the tradition, which we have augmented by providing publication dates, and authors’ names and birthplaces. This makes the geo-temporal origins of those names much more accessible. Comparing the GIS-tagged author birthplace and publication sites of the Chinese recipe corpus allows better study of the regionality of drug lore.

Maps of the early Bencao or pharmacopoeic tradition come from geo-tagging a work with three layers of historical texts between 200 and 500 BCE. Since they are tagged and separated them into layers, which are visible and interactive on the map, users can filter and search for particular drugs’ production sites, and see their change over time. A second map visualizes the geographic distribution of drug lists in excavated literature to the locations for those drugs in the Bencao tradition, comparing geographies of drug lore. A forthcoming article, Mapping the Bencao, describes new insights derived from this view.  Finally a few ethnographic videos of Malay and Chinese medicine in practice in Singapore are also included, giving an impression of the lived lives of these traditions.  

Researchers can discover much more about localized drug knowledge over time. This has implications for the history and present of drug ecology, especially as the burgeoning herbal marketplace is driving people to learn to farm traditional drugs in new, ecologically comparable locations. The site is organized to be scalable to expand and link to other textual and drug traditions in other languages, and we invite interested collaborators to get in touch with the PI.

Project Review

Vivienne Lo

Polyglot Asian Medicines is a digital humanities project conceived and led by Michael Stanley-Baker of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU). It aims to facilitate the discovery of new medical knowledge about the intersections of traditional medical practices as they can be revealed digitally through cross-linguistic exchanges in Maritime Southeast Asia. To this end the project has mobilized the skills and resources of researchers from NTU, National Taiwan University Center for Digital Humanities Research, and Max Planck Institute (MPI) for the History of Science, with support and input by the Medical Plant Names Service at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in the UK.

Originally trained at Indiana University and University College London in Chinese religions and medical humanities respectively, Stanley-Baker is a digital pioneer who brings to his project unrivaled expertise in the medico-religious contexts within which drug knowledge was created and transmitted in pre-modern China. He represents the next generation of transnational historians who are spearheading global communities of digital practice and pushing back the frontiers of knowledge on a scale that their forbears could hardly have imagined.

The initiative also involves extraordinary networking abilities. It speaks to Stanley-Baker’s ability to mobilize connections that will maximize the resources of multiple open-access databases, institutions, and scholars in Asia, Europe, and North America. Crucial sources include texts from the Chinese Buddhist Electronic Texts Archive (CBETA), Chinese Daoist texts from the Kanseki Repository, and many pharmacological dictionaries hosted at Zhongyi shijia 中醫世家. The project also hosts the largest collection of Chinese medical manuscript transcriptions outside of China, donated by the textual scholar professor Liu Changhua 柳長華 and housed in the DocuSky system developed by the National University of Taiwan.

One can never freeze-frame an ever-emerging digital project. The project provides three types of resources: transcribed medical manuscripts, GIS maps of early Chinese pharmacology, and a multi-lingual drug synonymy. At time of writing, the project has mapped 11,240 Main Chinese Drug names, and 35,136 alternate Chinese drug names, with 8,388 recognized modern scientific drug names harvested from 1700 historical sources linked to 1100 known historical people. And this is just the beginning. The project also captures data from a set of traditional Malay medical texts as well as traditional medicines in other languages native to the region. In an environment where the loss of diversity in plant species is one of the greatest challenges of the anthropocene, knowing what has been there over the relatively brief past two thousand years is an urgent human responsibility. Polyglot Asian Medicines is an essential tool which is contributing to meeting this challenge from historical, anthropological and pharmacological perspectives.

With so many historical texts already marked up for the names of drugs, people, and locations with the help of the MARKUS tool for text tagging — and with the locations coordinated with the help of the China Historical GIS project at Harvard University and the Buddhist Studies Place Authority Databases in Taiwan — it has become possible to visualize against historical maps, in an instant, the early textual layers of pharmacopoeic lore that surround any individual Chinese drug. The digital mapping of these species’ geographic distribution against the 5th-century Collected Commentaries on the Pharmaceutical Canon (Bencao jing jizhu 本草經集注), for example, allows the researcher alternative access to regional medical heritage and medical resources in ancient times. A rapid growth of excavated literature unearthed in ancient China gives us much more precise knowledge of the geographic, temporal, and social circulation of materia medica than do the drug records of books that were printed much later on. Lately, I have seen how Polyglot Asian Medicines’ findings about the directional flow of the materia medica can be used definitively to critique historical and archaeological analysis of the transmission of medical knowledge, in this case along the river networks from east to west of Han dynasty China. There is much more to chart.

Polyglot Asian Medicines is built on the precedent Drugs Across Asia database project which Stanley-Baker constructed while on a research fellowship at MPI in Berlin. That project modeled the distribution of medical knowledge through early imperial Buddhist and Daoist sources, showing which contained the most relevant vocabulary. Searching these texts permits researchers to raise hypotheses informed by philologically rich meta-data about drug texts. This is critical digital philology at its best. As medical drugs, traveled across regions, communities, and time they were differently understood and given different names, complicating any attempt to identify their transmission. 

Traditional medical practitioners harmonized local Chinese herbs globally by assigning Chinese medical potencies to the new substances they found as they traveled around the world. This is a time-honored practice that follows the Chinese diaspora from Korea to Japan and Africa to Cuba to South America and that points to another urgent scientific concern which requires a digital humanities approach: What substitutions of one plant species for another have been made historically? And what might ensure further substitutions are safe and effective? With very few scholars based in Singapore paying attention to critical multilingual approaches to Chinese medicine, Polyglot Asian Medicines provides the linguistic evidence to ground these inquiries. Critically, the 21st century has seen the search for modern drugs discoveries increasingly focused on traditional usages with systematic evaluation of indigenous medicines on the agenda of international and national organizations and NGOs. The sky is therefore the limit in terms of the potential future impact of the project.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?