Digital Humanities for the study of traditional Asian medicines

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A guest post for The Digital Orientalist (4/10/24), under The Magic of Philology and Indexing, Polyglot Asian Medicines (Foundational Resources and Digital Tools), by Michael Stanley-Baker, Christopher S.G. Khoo and Faizah Zakariah (all three are based at academic institutions in Singapore), "Tracking Drug Names Across Language, Time, Space and Knowledge Domains to Produce New Visions of Traditional Medicine".

This is a richly detailed article with many links and citations.  I will not attempt to cover, much less extensively quote, lengthy portions.  Instead, I will begin with the authors' general introduction, note the main sections of the article, refer to the graphs, and quote one typical section to show what the authors' approach can accomplish.


Digital Humanities is akin to “critical thinking,” so vaunted in the humanities, because it allows us to reinterpret existing primary materials in new ways, according to researchers’ critical interests. These unanticipated new discoveries are somewhat akin to “discovering” existing archaeological materials “in the basement” of museums and archives—already there in the record, but previously unnoticed, quietly waiting to be brought to the fore. 

One fundamental way DH does this is by allowing us to re-index old materials in entirely new ways. Mining old texts and organising them according to critical interest is much more powerful than simple “comprehensive” or arithmetic summaries that reiterate old assumptions. It offers the potential to re-discover the past, to re-organise materials and explore them in different ways, making new connections, even without generating “new” information.

The Polyglot Asian Medicine investigates the history of Asian drugs using a philological orientation, by transforming print and manuscript publications into machine-actionable data.In this way it develops new ways to interact with the ancient past, connect it with the lived present, and possibly shape the future development of heritage medicines.  

In this post I describe how we modelled the interconnections between different domains of knowledge using tabular data initially, and produced a knowledge graph which allows users to search, navigate, and explore them to make novel discoveries. The digital medium is far more effective than print for reproducing the philological sophistication of local knowledge systems, while also allowing for links to rigorous, valid, modern scientific data. Through modelling and interconnecting different knowledge styles, we can begin to unpack the problems of the current state of ethnopharmacology – the lack of simplistic standardisation of these systems is not a bug, it is a feature.  The power of interlinked data and digital multi-media is that they allow us to connect these knowledge scenes without degradation of indigenous knowledge styles.



Verified and Updated Species

Accounting for Pluralism with Critical Philology

Reconstructing Multiple Ontologies with a Knowledge Graph

New Ways to Explore Historical Name Data

Data Confirmation


Five graphs and tables, including Polyglot Medicine Knowledge Graph and emphasizing Synonymy

The authors introduce

an entirely novel way to research the entry of new drugs into the Chinese pharmacopoeic tradition. For example, we can discover the introduction of different uses of the same species, cloves [dīngxiāng 丁香], over time:

Fruit (母丁香):  5th Century 雷公炮製輪
Seed (丁子香): 6th Century 齊民要術
Bark 丁香樹皮: 8th Century 海藥本草
Root 丁香根:    11th Century 開寶本草
Twigs 丁香枝:  16th Century 本草綱目
Essential Oil 丁香油/丁香露: 18th Century 藥性考/本草拾遺

Readers sensitive to the historiography of Chinese medicine will recognise the 8th century Haiyao bencao 海藥本草 which introduced many drugs from India, Persia and Central Asia; that the 16th century was in the midst of a massive influx of silver and goods via South East Asia and the Philippines; and that the 18th century was when European missionary medicine began to enter China.  Already from this simple timeline one can put together a potted history of the use of cloves in traditions other than the Chinese, the likely periods and vectors of contact, and use this as a framework for further research.

This project on traditional Asian drug names is a good example of how DH is capable of unlocking, unleashing, and conveniently organizing vast bodies of previously undigested raw data.


Selected readings

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