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This site addresses  the intersection of traditional medical systems and languages, framed here as “polyglot medicine.” taking maritime Southeast Asia as a starting point, with Singapore at the centre, it provides resources and tools for studying how these medical cultures compare, contradict or overlap. 

It begins with the work of three scholars had independently studied

  • Chinese medical conceptualisations of Malay medicinal plants

  • the intersection of medicine with religion in Malay healing

  • medicinal plant use and tribal languages near East Timor 

It provides

  • TEXTS for close reading

  • a SYNONYMY to translate across languages and epistemes, 

  • TOOLS for further research, such as maps and a script convertor,

  • and ethnographic videos of modern-day PRACTICE.


The Chinese corpus contains 392 digital editions of early medical manuscripts from 200 CE to the Republican Era.  These are transcribed from manuscripts, woodblock prints and lithographs held in libraries across China. The Malay corpus contains twelve digital editions of Malay manuscripts and print editions held in Leiden, Kuala Lumpur and the British Library.  All have been hand-typed, segmented, and digitally tagged, by teams under Liu Changhua 柳長華 of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Science and Faizah Zakariah. They were then hosted in the DocuSky system by teams with Michael Stanley-Baker 徐源 at Nanyang Technological University and Yi-mei Hung 洪一梅 of National Taiwan University.  Michael Goodman wrote a digital tool to convert Jawi text to Rumi and back.

DocuSky allows new ways to study medical knowledge, including tracking networked clusters of drugs across time and genre, statistical analysis of their appearance together or in relation to disease terms, transformation over time, and geographic origin of the author, which can be compared with the geographic sourcing for the drugs described in the Polyglot Drug Synonymy.


"Polyglot" does not just refer to different medical languages, but to the translation of ideas, practices and materials across different knowledge systems, regions and times.

The Synonymy, designed by Christopher Khoo, brings together traditional epistemologies with modern science via the modern botany. This links traditional drug terms the most recent standards in botanical science, drawing from over twenty-five Malay and Chinese medical and botanical dictionaries. Where known, we record a term's  provenance 出處 and the date the term first emerges in the historical record. Working with Kew Gardens Medicinal Plant Name Services, we have updated the older names in those dictionaries to the most recent accepted names in modern botanical science. This data is now a reference for Kew, who cite over 18,000 entries.


The Synonymy links out to databases across a range of modern sciences: plant chemistry and pharmacology, biodiversity mapping, and biodiversity heritage. The goals of these connections are to increase appreciation for the efficacy of heritage knowledge, further the potential for increased drug safety, and provide a stepping stone for research into modern polypharmacy and new drug discovery.


We include ethnographic videos made as student projects for a class taught by Drs. Zakariah and Stanley-Baker, as records of the presence and lived practice of these medicines in modern-day Sinagpore.

By documenting the historical uses and dating the emergence of this knowledge in the textual record, the project seeks to assist in protecting indigenous claims to drug knowledge, and contribute to a conversation about the fair use of indigenous medical knowledge when translated into modern day epistemes and ontologies. By linking out to data concerning the time periods and geographic propagation of the drugs, it also seeks to assist in the study of historical migration and adaptation of medical materials. 

It is our hope these will enable scholars and the general public to trace local medicinal plants, and the understanding of their use, across multiple medical traditions, in their original languages. We hope to enhance the understanding of local ethnic communities’ practices of borrowing, assimilation and adaptation over time. 

We gratefully acknowledge the support provided by the Singapore National Heritage Foundation, as well as many others mentioned here, for the development and assembling of these resources.

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