The Monkey and the Inkpot

The Monkey and the Inkpot: Natural History and its Transformations in Early Modern China (Harvard University Press, 2009)

The Monkey and the Inkpot introduces natural history in sixteenth century China through the iconic Bencao gangmu (Systematic materia medica) of Li Shizhen (1518–1593). The encyclopedic Bencao gangmu is widely lauded as a classic embodiment of pre-modern Chinese medical thought. This first book-length study in English of Li’s text reveals a “cabinet of curiosities” of gems, beasts, and oddities whose author was devoted to using natural history to guide the application of natural and artificial objects as medical drugs. In this book I was particularly interested in the tools that a sixteenth century doctor has at his disposal to help him decide what to believe (and to encourage his readers to believe) about the natural world around him. A large part of this petite book, then, examines the making of facts and weighing of evidence in Li’s massive collection, where tales of wildmen and dragons were recorded alongside recipes for ginseng and peonies. The Monkey and the Inkpot also illuminates the modern fate of a book that continues to shape alternative healing practices, global pharmaceutical markets, and Chinese culture.

The title of the book was inspired by a short piece by Jorge Luis Borges that has been collected in Imaginary Beings.