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Doctoral Project

A Cultural History of Animal Waste in Late Imperial China
Sijia Cheng (M.A.)

From the 17th to the 19th century, animal waste was widely used for various purposes in China, especially in the realms of medicine, agriculture, military and religion. It reveals that excrement not only played a crucial part in daily practices but was also an object of knowledge. Following Mary Douglas’s conceptualization of dirt as “matter out of place,” this dissertation examines how knowledge of animal waste in late imperial China was socially and culturally constructed.

My research explores five central questions. Firstly, it concerns how the utilization of animal waste shaped human lives and the relationship between humans and animals. Secondly, it investigates what activities were involved in the treatment of animal waste, and how they were affected by changes in technology and the environment. Thirdly, it scrutinizes how and based on which criteria was the value of excrement determined. In addition, it looks at the tension between the utilization of animal waste and the instinctive aversion towards it. Finally, I bring a transcultural dimension in the dissertation by delving into how knowledge of animal waste traveled in the vast Qing Empire and among East Asian localities.

I base my investigation on historical sources, such as specialized treatises of medicine, agriculture and military, as well as encyclopedias, collectanea, brush notes, local gazetteers, religious writings and literary works. Looking at such a seemingly insignificant and, to most, unpleasant lens, a study of animal waste promises to provide a fresh look at the relationships between humans and animals, knowledge and practice, as well as technology and the environment in late imperial China.