The Myth of Rhubarb: The Strategic Rationale and Cultural Implications of China's Prohibitions on the Export of Rhubarb to Britain and Russia in the Qing Period
大黃 ； 文化交流 ； 貿易制裁 ； 中英關係 ； 中俄關係 ； 鴉片戰爭 ； 恰克圖 ； 本草 ； 物質文化 ； rhubarb ； trade sanction ； Opium War ； Sino-British Relations ； Sino-Russian Relations ； materia medica ； material culture
|Volume or Term/Year and Month of Publication||
47期（2005 / 03 / 01）
43 - 100
This paper examines the strategic thinking behind China's prohibition on the export of rhubarb to Britain before the Opium War, and explores the myth that Westerners could not survive without rhubarb. The paper makes five main points. First, the strategy was based on the previous successful experience over Russia in 1792, during the late Qianlong reign. Second, the myth was based on differences between the pharmaceutical theories and material cultures of the Chinese and Western traditions. In China rhubarb was considered as fatal if misused, whereas in the West, after a specific method of processing, rhubarb was considered to possess mild medical qualities. Furthermore, in the Western tradition of pharmacology rhubarb was broadly used as a cure-all for its amazing effects of discharging surplus body fluids. Thus in China and in the West, this same herb possessed completely different images. Third, a contingent reason fostering the myth was the Russian government's recent termination of the rhubarb monopoly before the Sino-Russian border conflict. This gave rise to increased smuggling, which China misunderstood as evidence that Russia desperately needed rhubarb. When the boarder conflict came to an end in 1792, Russia's unusually submissive attitude tended to confirm this misunderstanding. Fourth, therefore, the rhubarb myth did not lie in baseless imagination; rather, Chinese aimed to collect evidence on the basis of a false question, namely how China could keep a privileged status over other countries by controlling some necessary goods, which can be traced back to the successful tea-horse trade model developed in the Ming Dynasty. Finally, fifth, whether we consider rhubarb or the tea-horse trade, both policies were based on a natural theory concerning pharmacology, food, the body, and the natural environment. This paper concludes by noting that the complexity of Chinese diplomacy cannot be grasped by a simple theoretical structure. Sometimes it is essential to examine cultural factors such as medicine and pharmacology to understand the basis on which it was conducted.