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Chinese Medicine and Folk Practice in Singapore


Many writers on Chinese medicine in the region have short memories, and portray the practice of Chinese medicine as beginning only in the 19th century, with the British-instigated migration of workers from Southern China. It has been recognised by some authors that settlers came to Singapore from China bringing Chinese medical notions from at least the fourteenth century. However, Chinese records of the region date back much earlier, even to the Han Dynasty Nanzhou yiwuzhi 南州異物志 (Record of Strange Matters from the Southern Regions), which describes kings and kingdoms, natural geography, medicines and trade products from the region. Daoist texts such as the sixth century Grand Purity Scripture on Divine Elixir and Golden Ichor 太清金液神丹經 , and medical texts such as the 5 Dynasties (907-979) Haiwai bencao 海外本草 describe dozens of materia medica from the South Seas 南海. These records attest to much earlier Chinese contact, trade and medicinal exploration than is acknowledged in colonial histories. 


This transplanted medical culture can be seen in current folk practice in Singapore. For example, while gardeners at the NTU Community Herb Garden prescribe fresh medicinal herbs using Mandarin, Hokkien and Teochew, and describe how different dialect communities adopt them for different uses, they are also fully cognizant that these are not Chinese materia medica. They describe diseases and cures in dialect Chinese, and use Chinese epistemological theories such as wind, cold, and heat common to Chinese medicine, but the drugs are South East Asian, and most do not appear in Chinese traditional texts. How can we begin to historicise this phenomenon? Are these drugs described in other medical systems? Are they understood in the same way? Can we determine textual provenance of references to these plants? Can we learn how these drugs came to be described in Chinese medical terms? Do they hold prominent roles in Malay, Unani, or Ayurvedic medicine? From what time period?


It is these questions which have led us to want to develop a digital platform which can allow interdisciplinary research from various departure points. Whether you are an ethnographer who wants to house and publish field data, or a heritage user of the medicine who wants to find a recipe, or a biomedical doctor concerned about potential drug interactions, or a historian who wants to better understand the rich textures of medical synthesis and transmission over time, this platform can be a starting point for such individual inquiries, and a centre-point around which multi-faceted conversations can take place between communities.

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