by Vivienne Lo

Rhubarb (rheum officinale)*, is native to Suzhou in North-West China (present-day Jiuquan in Gansu province). In China, rhubarb has been rated as a medicinal drug from the Shennong Bencao jing (The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica) of about the 1st or 2nd millennia onward.

Livingstone's Rousers: an anti-malarial and purgative containing quinine and rhubarb

Livingstone’s Rousers: an anti-malarial and purgative containing quinine and rhubarb

The root was commonly used as a cathartic, but it has other uses and is still commonly added to complex decoctions of many drugs. Rhubarb root is an excellent laxative but has to be properly prepared by boiling several times otherwise to neutralize its toxicity. Rhubarb appears in Medieval Arabic and European prescriptions and arrived in the West via the Silk Roads as a highly prized drug, sometimes more valuable than cinnamon and saffron.

The potency of rhubarb root was so well known in Asia that in the 18th century one Chinese physician opined that: ‘the generality of physicians fear rhubarb like snakes and scorpions, and some do not so much as touch it all their lives’. Properly used, it was thought to have radical regenerative properties for chronic disease, but ‘misused, it was like the [poisonous] zhen 鸩bird’ …and could have fatal consequences.

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Chinese or Turkish rhubarb (Rheum palmatum): flowering and fruiting stem with leaf. Coloured zincograph after M. A. Burnett, c. 1842.

Chinese rhubarb was a sought after commodity in early modern times. Zhao Yi 赵翼 (1727-1814) famously wrote, ‘the Russians regard Chinese rhubarb as the sovereign drug, and it is the only remedy than can cure them when they are sick. […] Lately, because of various infringements of the agreements, the government suspended trade, and placed an embargo on the export of rhubarb. The Russians were instantly cowed and did not dare cause trouble. […] Heaven produces only two things of this kind [i.e. rhubarb and tea], which serve our Qing Dynasty as a weapon to control the foreign barbarians’.

So the rhubarb trade was of great interest to the Russian czars; and from 1657 until 1781 the trade remained a royal monopoly. During this time, the Russian brand – ‘Crown rhubarb’ – maintained a lively presence on the European pharmaceutical market, competing with and predominating over ‘Turkish’ and ‘Indian’ rhubarb. Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725) brought changes, including an advanced system of quality control of rhubarb, as most of the rhubarb purchased by Russia was originally destined for the West European drug markets. Access of ordinary people to rhubarb was severely limited.

The Russians went to a great deal of trouble to maintain the high quality of Crown Rhubarb. In 1738, a Bokharan merchant from Qinghai was selected to supply good quality rhubarb through him and his descendants at a fixed price. The profit margin was so great that, according to one statistic, the proceeds from a single transaction could maintain the Russian army for a year, and could rise as high as 150,000 roubles.

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A poor street peddlar selling rhubarb and spices in London.

But around 1745, the English and Dutch had started dumping Indian rhubarb on the market at a low price and though Russian rhubarb maintained its reputation for the finest quality, it was prohibitively expensive for ordinary consumers, resulting in increasingly sluggish sales. Finally in 1781, Catherine the Great (r. 1762-1796) took the decision to throw the rhubarb trade open to the public, thus putting an end to a century-long royal monopoly.

In the absence of any knowledge of the very different pharmacodynamics of rhubarb in Western medicine, the Western demand for rhubarb was interpreted in China according to the Chinese view of the drug as a very potent purgative.

Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu

Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu

In the mid 19th century the story of the rhubarb trade gets wrapped up with that of opium in the mind of Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu 林则徐(1785-1850). Lin won a great reputation for being a patriot in his efforts to put an end to British opium smuggling in China. In the mid-nineteeth century huge amounts of silver were leaking out of China to pay for the rapid increase in opium addiction, and there was soaring inflation as a result. In 1838, riding on a wave of Chinese resentment against the annual importation of 30,000 chests of opium from British hands, Commissioner Lin, in his capacity as Governor-General of Hubei and Hunan, petitioned the emperor, remonstrating against the foreign economic invasion.

He went on to write to the ‘Barbarian Queen’, Queen Victoria: “A communication: magnificently our great emperor soothes and pacifies China and the foreign countries, regarding all with the same kindness. …. The Kings of your honourable country have always been noted for their politeness and submissiveness….

Among the hordes of barbarians [the British that is] there both good persons and bad…

We find that your country is sixty or seventy thousand li from China. Yet there are barbarian ships that strive to come here for trade for the purpose of making a profit.  To smuggle opium to seduce the Chinese people. His majesty the Emperor is in a Towering Rage. 
By what right do they injure the Chinese people? Of all that china exports to foreign countries, there is not a single thing which is not of benefit when eaten. Take tea and rhubarb for example; the foreign countries cannot get along for a single day without them…

Rhubarb juggling beside the herb spiral. Any why not!

Rhubarb juggling beside the herb spiral. Any why not!

What on earth did Commisioner Lin think Queen Victoria’s diet was like? He didn’t know about the rhubarb and custard that gave her that fine figure. Perhaps she was terribly constipated… But the Chinese court had, for a long time, had strange fantasies about what other foreign people did with rhubarb, and they weren’t thinking about crumble… Juggling perhaps?




*Much of the information for this piece is taken from an article I published for Chang Che-chia, ‘Origins of a Misunderstanding: The Qianlong Emperor’s Embargo on Rhubarb Exports to Russia’, in Asian Medicine Vol 1, No 2: 335-354.

See also:
Clifford Foust, Rhubarb – The Wondrous Drug, Princeton University, 1992.

Archive images courtesy of: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Livingstone Rousers image courtesy of: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images