Ghosts or Mucus? Medicine for Madness: New Doctrines, Therapies, and Rivalries

In: Modern Chinese Religion I (2 vols.)


How did madness, which had been classified as a Wind or demonic illness in most medical treatises until at least the 10th century, come to be attributed almost unfailingly to mucus and Fire by the 14th? This chapter unravels the complicated process by which Wind medicine was displaced and emetics and purgatives replaced moxibustion and apotropaic pharmacy as the main medical treatments for mad behavior. It also explains how physicians used these novel doctrines to affirm their superiority over ritual healers, and how the attribution of insanity to mucus eventually became a culturally ubiquitous way of explaining the failures of human actions and perceptions. Since these momentous shifts took place discreetly and with few controversies on the nature of insanity, my explanations draw on broader trends such as state sponsorship of medicine, increasing interest in the inner mechanisms of illness, and the rising prominence of syncretic approaches to medical learning.