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From Flour to Alchemy: Situating a Ninth-Century Tale of Marvel

Fri, March 17, 10:30am to 12:30pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Floor: 2nd Floor, Wentworth

Abstract

The Tang dynasty saw the emergence of a maturing dietary literature concerned with culinary practices and pharmacotherapy connected by concepts of cosmology. This paper presents a case study in the relationships among materia dietetica, alchemy and the traffic in esoteric knowledge, as they are envisioned in a ninth-century tale with an unconventional twist on the consumption of wheat. The tale, which is classified under the category “The Swarms of Crawlers” (kunchong) in the narrative compendium Taiping guangji, begins by describing a flour-consuming parasite living in the stomach of the protagonist, and the evolving plot develops into the commodification of this creature as it propels the protagonist into encounters that culminates in an oceanic treasure hunt and in a significant windfall.

Although this tale contains many fantastic elements, is its logic of representation as farfetched as it first appears? The tale departs from the demonological depiction of health-threatening worms (chong) inside the human body as inherited from early medieval Taoist concepts; wheat is given praise as something of a numinous grain, and the story suggests a tantalizing connection between wheat and the parasite in that both are said to metabolize the “essential qi of the four seasons.” Beginning with these points of contact, this paper will situate this narrative within the larger context of Tang food history, pharmacology, and the geography of trade, in order to understand the story’s sources of influence and unpack its logic of representation.

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