In the past decades, we have witnessed academic articles and monographs published at an astonishing rate on the cultural interactions between Tibet and China. These studies have tended to focus on the religious ideas and practices influencing the elite class, namely the Tibetan Buddhism that interested the rulers of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. Tibetan influence on the popular culture of the Chinese has been largely ignored. This is partly because the Tibetans have never been rulers of the East Asian Heartland. Moreover, for geographic and historical reasons, Tibet was — until the 1950s — a mystical and hermetically enclosed society in the Chinese imagination. It has consequently been believed that Tibetan culture could not have any direct or lasting effect on Chinese society during the imperial period.
This study aims to challenge these assumptions, and to rethink Sino- Tibetan cultural communications from a different perspective. We begin with a survey of the surviving textual records on the usage of the peacock's gallbladder and the image of the peacock, revealing several clues for further exploration. Following these clues, we close in on the origin of the peacock's gallbladder as a lethal poison in the Tibetan culture of medicine and pharmacy. We examine the introduction of Tibetan medicine to China under the Mongol rule, and its tremendous impact on the Mongol elites in the second section of this paper, and focus on the medicinal usage of the peacock's gallbladder recorded in two major works of Tibetan materia medica, namely the rGyud-bZhi and the Shel gong shel phreng, in the third section. Lastly, we discuss the possible Buddhist influence on the reception of the peacock in Tibetan tradition.
The Peacock's Gallbladder and the Peacock in the Chinese Tradition
A pharmacologist would point out that the “peacock's gallbladder”, at least as a poison, simply does not exist: like the gallbladders of many other birds, it is in no sense toxic. Why, then, did this story, so at odds with any kind of fact, survive?
What is the peacock's gallbladder? Can we associate the poisonous mythical “peacock's gallbladder” with the actual gallbladder of a peacock? Alternatively, is the item in question something possessing a fancy name but actually having nothing to do with the peacock? An examination of the history of the myth, especially regarding the cultures that have accepted it, may help answer these questions.