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This research investigates the intersection of traditional medical systems and medical languages in maritime Southeast Asia, with Singapore at the centre. Drawing on ethnographic research by the PI, it recognizes that Chinese dialect speakers use local (Malay World) medicinal plants but conceptualize their use in Chinese (not only Malay) medical frames. This points to a hitherto unstudied history of the cross-linguistic exchange of medical knowledge in the region, framed here as “polyglot medicine.”


This project historicizes this phenomenon by assembling and developing textual and digital resources which will enable scholars, and the general public, to trace local medicinal plants, and the understanding of their use, across multiple medical textual traditions, in their original languages. It will investigate polyglot traditional medicine in the region by studying the ethnonyms for medicinal plants in Chinese and Malay as they appear in manuscripts and ethnographic surveys. By tracing the presence of these plants in historical texts and contemporary use, we will radically enhance the understanding of local ethnic communities’ practices of borrowing, assimilation and adaptation over time. By integrating this data with up-to-the-minute standards in botanical science, plant chemistry and pharmacology, we will promote appreciation of the efficacy of traditional methods, while at the same facilitating a radical increase in drug safety monitoring, research into modern polypharmacy, and the potential for new drug discovery, while at the same time protecting indigenous claims to the drug knowledge.

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