In Search of Goldthread: Harvest, Cultivation and Multiplication of a Bitter Herb in Late Imperial China
Traditional Chinese medicine commands a formidable repertoire of over 2,000 simple drugs, the majority of which come from plants and animals found only in specific and often remote regions. Little study has been done, however, over the practical aspects of how to secure enough supply of authentic drugs for pre-modern pharmacies. To what extent were herbs regularly harvested from the wilderness, and did exhaustion of natural resources give rise to large-scale cultivation? In this paper, I aim to show how the production and trade of herbal drugs involved large sectors of agricultural and non-agricultural population in pre-modern China, using the example of Chinese goldthread (huanglian), the bitter root of a plant belonging to the Coptis genus and one of the staple drugs in the Chinese pharmacological tradition. Using governmental records, local gazetteers and materia medica texts, I will demonstrate the westward movement of the native place of “authentic” goldthread, from a hilly region in lower-Yangzi into the mountainous frontier of Sichuan in the seventeenth century, along with the later emergence of new centers of goldthread cultivation. These relatively new developments eventually resulted in the multiplication of distinct goldthread products aiming for different market sectors, some of which are still available today.