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LRCCS Noon Lecture Series | Between Food and Medicine: A Preliminary Exploration of the Consumption of Ginseng, Bird’s Nest, Sea Cucumber, and Shark Fin in Early Modern China

Minghui Hu, Associate Professor of History, University of California Santa Cruz
Tuesday, February 20, 2024
12:00-1:00 PM
Room Room 110-120 Weiser Hall Map
Attend in person or via Zoom. Zoom registration at

This study examines the confluence of dietary and medicinal practices in early modern China, focusing on four specific items: ginseng, bird's nest, sea cucumber, and shark fin. These substances, esteemed for their nutritional and therapeutic properties, provide a distinctive lens through which to view the cultural, social, and economic dimensions of Chinese dietary customs and traditional medicine during this era.

In early modern China, the demarcation between food and medicine was frequently ambiguous. This ambiguity was particularly pronounced in consuming certain items valued not only for their gastronomic appeal but also for their purported health advantages. Ginseng, bird's nest, sea cucumber, and shark fin are prime examples of this phenomenon and indicate luxury consumption.

Ginseng, often hailed as a cure-all, was consumed for various purported benefits, including energy enhancement, cognitive function improvement, and longevity. Its luxury item status also made it a symbol of affluence and social standing. Similarly, bird's nest, derived primarily from the saliva of swiftlets, was another item of luxury, consumed for its alleged benefits in respiratory health and skin complexion. The sea cucumber, a marine organism, was sought after for its potential benefits in joint health and anti-inflammatory properties. Shark fin, predominantly used in shark fin soup, symbolized prestige and luxury. Despite its limited flavor profile, it was valued for its texture and assumed health benefits, such as enhancing sexual potency and preventing heart disease.

The consumption of these four items in early modern China exemplifies the intricate interaction between dietary and medicinal practices. These substances were integral to the diet and bore significant cultural, social, and economic implications. Their use reflects broader themes of health, wealth, and status within Chinese society and an evolving comprehension of the relationship between diet and health.

This research aims to investigate the perceived medicinal benefits of these foods, their impact on tax regulations and to draw preliminary conclusions about their role in the cultural and social dynamics of the period. This exploration will contribute to a deeper understanding of the complex interplay between nourishment and medicine in the historical context of early modern China.

Minghui Hu studied structural engineering with computer-assisted analysis and design in Taiwan and earned his BS in 1989. Upon receiving his MS from Virginia Tech’s Science and Technology Studies graduate program, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue his PhD in History at UCLA. Hu was a computer programmer at a child psychiatrist lab in a UCLA hospital while pursuing a PhD in History. Upon completing his dissertation in the History of Science program at UCLA in 2004, he moved to the University of Chicago as an Andrew Mellon postdoctoral fellow. Hu joined the faculty of History at UCSC in 2005. Minghui Hu has published a monograph titled “China’s Transition to Modernity: The New Classical Vision of Dai Zhen” (Washington 2015; the Chinese translation is forthcoming in early 2024) and co-edited Cosmopolitanism in China, 1600-1950 (Cambria 2016) with Johan Elverskog. His articles have appeared in several academic journals, including The International History Review, Frontier of History in China, Twentieth-First Century, Xue Heng, and Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. He has completed a book manuscript titled “Waiting for the Barbarians: A History of Geopolitics in Early Modern China” (Cambria, 2025). Data mining and the field of digital humanities are the main focus of his future research. He will also continue to study the history of early modern China.

If there is anything we can do to make this event accessible to you, please contact us. Please be aware that advance notice is necessary as some accommodations may require more time for the university to arrange.
Building: Weiser Hall
Event Type: Lecture / Discussion
Tags: Asia, China, History
Source: Happening @ Michigan from Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, International Institute, Asian Languages and Cultures