This introductory chapter explores the career of pharmaceutical objecthood in Chinese culture between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. It also provides a brief overview of how the scientific tradition of bencao came to be entangled with state power in medieval times. The bencao were imperially commissioned pharmacopeias whose history contains broad implications about the development of Chinese modern scientific and medical developments. Indeed, the task of explaining the early modern discontinuity of this state-centered tradition posed great difficulties in the historiography of Chinese science. The chapter reviews that literature, before presenting ways in which an inclusive category of knowledge opens new venues for historical interpretation. Finally, it offers a quick guide to key themes and actors in succeeding chapters.
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