Monday, October 19, 2009

Carla Nappi's "The Monkey and the Inkpot"

Carla Nappi is Assistant Professor of History at the University of British Columbia.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Monkey and the Inkpot: Natural History and its Transformations in Early Modern China (Harvard University Press, 2009), and reported the following:
Much like the naturalists and doctors I write about in The Monkey and the Inkpot, I became fascinated with the bugs on page 99 when I first read about them. And much like Li Shizhen (“Lee Sher-jenn”), the main character in my book, I spent a long time trying to figure out what to make of these little guys.

Here’s how the story goes. Once upon a time, there lived a group of wasps. Flying around was fun for a while, but at some point these bugs would get lonely and want to settle down and start a family. Sounds reasonable, right? One problem: all of the wasps were male, so reproduction was an issue. At some point, one of them figured out a way out of this conundrum: he flew over to a nest of baby worms, chanted the phrase “Be like me” over them a few times, and voila! The worms transformed into little wasplings. Instant babies with minimal fuss.

You’re probably thinking: wow, that’s pretty weird. That’s what I thought, too. And after I read this story in the Bencao gangmu (“Ben Sow-like-a-lady-pig Gong-Moo,” or Systematic Materia medica) [1596] I asked some of my Chinese-historian friends if they’d heard of these wacky wasps and many of them responded with something like, “No, that’s really weird – are you sure that’s in Li Shizhen’s famous compendium of traditional Chinese herbal knowledge?”

And I thought, Aha! I need to read more of this Bencao book and figure out what’s going on in there. As I learned about the intellectual and social world of its author, I tried to understand how a reasonable, educated person in sixteenth-century China, in a context before we see the typical trappings of modern bioscience but still in the midst of a flourishing intellectual world, went about assessing “weirdness.” How, after reading about plants and animals in poems and recipes and history books, looking around at the creatures in his backyard, and talking to his neighbors, did he put all of the resulting information together and try to figure out which stories were baloney? This was important, because Li was a practicing doctor: he was trying to use all of this information to understand the raw materials that went into the drugs that he’d make up for his patients, so his decisions were very much a matter of life and death.

As you’ll see in the book, I didn’t find a codified body of “traditional Chinese herbal knowledge.” But what I did find was infinitely more interesting: a natural landscape rich in both common weeds and deadly dragons, and a rowdy bunch of scholars trying to make sense of the conflicting stories about that landscape that were filling their bookshelves and their senses. I found Li getting drunk in his local bar, musing on the qualities of dragon-meat, and cutting open anteaters. To find out what he thought about the wasps, however, you’ll have to read page 100.
Read an excerpt from The Monkey and the Inkpot, and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue