A brief history of woody peony in Chinese gardening and pharmacy

Mr Teruyuki Kubo (at Chinese Academy of Sciences, The Institute for the History of Natural Science, The Needham Research Institute)

Sunday, 27 January, 2007; 14:00-15:30

Keynes Hall, King's College, Cambridge

The woody peony has been well-known by western people as a representive flower of China. However surprisingly Chinese intellectuals before the Tang dynasty [Toudai] almost ignored woody peonies. Afterwards the flowers suddenly became fashionable during the Kaiyuan period (713-741) [Kaigen] of the Tang dynasty. People even composed many poems relating to it. Why did it suddenly appear in Chinese literature at that time? Why did people only value woody peony highly? In this seminar, I attempt a brief discussion concerning these questions.
Secondly, I would like to introduce the history of this flower's medical use. The Chinese word Mudan [Botan], which refers to all varieties of woody peonies in contemporary China, obviously appeared in the medical books in the Eastern Han dynasty [Gokan]. However the Xinxiu Bencao [Shinshu Honzo], a herbal book compiled by court physicians in A. D. 659, refers to a different plant, which has hardly any features in common with the woody peony. Was Mudan a woody peony or another plant? In contemporary Traditional Chinese Medicine, Mudan is often used in some popular prescriptions such as Jiawei Xiaoyaosan [Kami Shoyosan], Liuwei Dihuangwan [Rokumi Jiou-gan] and Dahuang Mudantang [Daiou Botan-tou]. Hence verification of Mudan's identity is a medically, as well as historically, important work . Here is another enigma from Japan: it was recorded in the Izumonokuni Fudoki (733) that Mudan grew in the Izumo area in Japan. Nevertheless woody peony is the native plant of the dry area in western China, and wild woody peony is weak in moist soil and at high temperatures. As a matter of fact, the wild species doesn't exist in Japan. So had the woody peony been cultivated in Japan, or was it another plant as mentioned above?
Finally having investigating Chinese and Japanese scripts, I have concluded that the early Mudan can be identified as species in the genus Ardisia. I would also like to contrast the medical benefits of both the plants and their attributes as described in old medical scripts in China.