Words, Demons, and Illness

Incantatory Healing in Medieval China

In: Asian Medicine
Yan Liu State University of New York Buffalo

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This article examines a salient medical practice in medieval China: healing by incantation. Focusing on the seventh century, when the status of incantatory healing reached its apex, I show how the Tang court incorporated the technique into its medical institutions and how physicians used it to treat diverse illnesses. In particular, this article investigates incantation from an etiological perspective. By studying the incantatory remedies of the famous physician Sun Simiao, I reveal an etiological eclecticism that encompassed both demonic and functional causes of illness. This demonstrates a strong practical sensibility in Sun’s works. A further study of vermin (particularly worms), which were etiologically related yet different from demons, shows the entanglement of the two etiologies that tied the activity of worms to the physiology of the body. These observations suggest that medieval Chinese medicine often involved the working of multiple etiologies in a linked and dynamic manner.

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