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The Monkey and the Inkpot

The Monkey and the Inkpot

Natural History and Its Transformations in Early Modern China

Carla Nappi

ISBN 9780674035294

Publication date: 10/15/2009

This is the story of a Chinese doctor, his book, and the creatures that danced within its pages. The Monkey and the Inkpot introduces natural history in sixteenth-century China through the iconic Bencao gangmu (Systematic materia medica) of Li Shizhen (1518–1593).

The encyclopedic Bencao gangmu is widely lauded as a classic embodiment of pre-modern Chinese medical thought. In the first book-length study in English of Li’s text, Carla Nappi reveals a “cabinet of curiosities” of gems, beasts, and oddities whose author was devoted to using natural history to guide the application of natural and artificial objects as medical drugs. Nappi examines the making of facts and weighing of evidence in a massive collection where tales of wildmen and dragons were recorded alongside recipes for ginseng and peonies.

Nappi challenges the idea of a monolithic tradition of Chinese herbal medicine by showing the importance of debate and disagreement in early modern scholarly and medical culture. The Monkey and the Inkpot also illuminates the modern fate of a book that continues to shape alternative healing practices, global pharmaceutical markets, and Chinese culture.


  • Carla Nappi takes us into one of the greatest Chinese encyclopedias of the natural world and its medicinal properties, the Bencao gangmu, which inspired the vision of the Chinese encyclopedia that haunts the pages of Borges and Foucault. Nappi draws us into the Bencao's complexities, and into the fertile and restless mind of its creator, Li Shizhen. Nappi opens the door on Li's cabinet of wonders.

    —Paula Findlen, Stanford University


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

Book Details

  • 250 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press