Transmitting Chinese Medicine

Changing Perceptions of Body, Pathology, and Treatment in Late Imperial China

in Asian Medicine
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Historians of Chinese medicine acknowledge the plurality of Chinese medicine along both synchronic and diachronic dimensions. Yet, there remains a tendency to think of tradition as being defined by some unchanging features. The Chinese medical body is a case in point. This is assumed to have been formalised by the late Han dynasty around a system of internal organs, conduits, collaterals, and associated body structures. Although criticism was voiced from time to time, this body and the micro/macrocosmic cosmological resonances that underpin it are seen to persist until the present day. I challenge this view by attending to attempts by physicians in China and Japan in the period from the mid 16th to the late 18th century to reimagine this body. Working within the domain of cold damage therapeutics and combining philological scholarship, empirical observations, and new hermeneutic strategies these physicians worked their way towards a new territorial understanding of the body and of medicine as warfare that required an intimate familiarity with the body’s topography. In late imperial China this new view of the body and medicine was gradually re-absorbed into the mainstream. In Japan, however, it led to a break with this orthodoxy that in the Republican era became influential in China once more. I argue that attending further to the innovations of this period—commonly portrayed as one of decline—from a transnational perspective may help to go beyond the modern insistence to frame East Asian medicines as traditional.

Asian Medicine

Journal of the International Association for the Study of Traditional Asian Medicine



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Benjamin 1974. English translation by Dennis Redmond 8 April 2001. Accessed on 21 October 2013 at


Li Jianmin 2000, pp. 46–9. Li’s account mirrors a long established indigenous historiographic tradition dating back at least to the Ming that imagined medical knowledge as “developing along a single thread like the main and descendant branches of an orthodox lineage.” Li traces this historiographic tradition from Xu Dachun’s 徐大春 On the Origin and Development of Medicine (Yixue yuanliu lun 醫學源流論) in the 18th century to Xie Guan’s 謝觀 On the Origin and Development of Medicine in China (Zhongguo yixue yuanliu lun 中國醫學源流論) in the Republican period and Fan Xingzhun’s 範行準 Synopsis of Chinese Medical History (Zhongguo yixueshi lue 中國醫學史略) in contemporary China. Although he appears to employ this view of Chinese medical history for largely rhetorical reasons in order to highlight the singular importance of the transformation he himself proposes to analyse, by denying fundamental change to that medicine for most of its life he also thereby reinforces established stereotypes that mark it as essentially different from western medical science with its history of progress and revolutionary change.


Bray 2007, p. 303.


Sivin 1987, p. 15; Kuriyama 1999, p. 265.


Unschuld et al. 2011, p. 333.


Despeux 2005. For similar assertions of essential difference in the visual representation of the body, see Kuriyama 1999; Kuriyama 2001.


Unschuld 1985, p. 197.


Scheid 2007a.


Hanson 2011, pp. 126–50.


Li Jianmin 2000. See also Harper 1998; Lo 2001; Unschuld 2003.


Unschuld 2003, pp. 167–80.


Li Jianmin 2000, p. 373.


Lo 2001.


Unschuld 2003, p. 170.


Guo Aichun 1989a, pp. 106–13.


Unschuld 2003, p. 331.


Guo Aichun 1989a, pp. 415–24; Unschuld et al. 2011, pp. 491–8.


Guo Aichun 1989a, pp. 216–41; Guo Aichun 1989b, pp. 745–85.


Guo Aichun 1989a, pp. 262–5.


Unschuld 1986, pp. 85–122. Recent work on texts from Dunhuang indicates that integration of pharmacotherapy and five phases thinking and thus what Unschuld refers to as the “medicine of systematic correspondence” was well underway by the Sui and Tang dynasties already, albeit in a different manner than that carried out in the Song. Li Shumin 2005.


Goldschmidt 2009, pp. 95–9.


Cao Dongyi 2002.


Goldschmidt 2009, pp. 100–1. On the content and history of the Song edition, see Guan Qingzeng and Lu Yunping 1994, pp. 21–3 and Qian Shaochen 2003. Today, three editions of the text that may predate the Song edition have been uncovered. See Guan Qingzeng and Lu Yunping 1994, pp. 30–6.


Goldschmidt 2009, pp. 141–72.


Cheng Wuji 1172. To give just two examples of its influence, both Li Peisheng 1987 and Mitchell et al., 1999 read the text in a way that largely accords with that of Cheng Wuji.


Goldschmidt 2009, pp. 169–71.


Fang Youzhi 1593.


Elman 2001, p. 43.


Ibid., p. 44.


Fang Youzhi 1593, p. 230.


Yang Yungao 1987; Chen Xuegong 2009, pp. 56–8.


Elman 2001, pp. 174–6.


Fang Youzhi 1593, pp. 252–74.


Zhu Gong 1108, p. 1.


Fang Youzhi 1593, p. 221.


Ibid., p. 11.


Huang Longxiang 2001, p. 355.


According to Despeux 2005, p. 27, in a preface to Yang Jie’s Charts of the True Circulatory Vessels (Cunzhen huanzhong tu 存真環中圖) of 1118 it says, ‘Yang Jie, styled Jilao 吉老, observed and drew the actual form of the five viscera. He examined the depictions of the viscera made by Yanluozi, arranged and amended them; he then added the twelve channels and entitled his work The True Circulatory Vessels’.


Huang Longxiang 2001, p. 363; Despeux 2005, p. 32.


Despeux 2005, p. 24. This imagination owes as much to Daoist ‘inward contemplation’ (neiguan 內觀) as it does to the study of anatomy based on the physical dissection of bodies, usually those of executed criminals Despeux 2005, pp. 25–32; Huang 2011.


Fang Youzhi 1593, p. 104.


Ibid., pp. 3–5.


Hsu 2010, pp. 216–20 provides a detailed account regarding the historical emergence of this view, which viewed the Bladder as a pouch.


Fang Youzhi 1593, p. 11.


Fang Youzhi 1593, p. 12.


Ibid., pp. 12–4.


Fang Youzhi 1593, pp. 273–4.


Wang Xinzhi 2008; Yang Yungao 1987.


Tang Dalie 1793, p. 21.


Elman 2005, p. 234.


Hanson 2011, pp. 116–7.


Yu Chang 1648, pp. 7–8.


Yu Chang 1643, p. 380.


See Ma Boying et al., 1994, pp. 469–79 for a discussion of the influence of Western understandings of the body, specifically regarding the brain, on late Ming medicine. It is interesting to note that Yu Chang is absent in his list of physicians who had access to such knowledge, nor have I found this discussed elsewhere. However, as Elman, 2001, p. 46 points out, Jiangnan literati associated with the Fushe 復社 or ‘Return to Antiquity Society’ that had such an important influence on shaping the research agenda of evidential scholarship were directly or indirectly influenced by Xu Guangqi 徐光啟 (1552–1610), a powerful scholar official who cooperated with the Jesuit Matteo Ricci. Given Yu Chang’s circle of friends and patients it is not inconceivable that he had access to this knowledge.


Hanson 2011, pp. 261–5.


Ke Qin 1705, pp. 5–6.


Author’s Foreword in Ke Qin 1705, p. 1.


Ke Qin 2009b, p. 217. It may be noted here that one reading of the term maì 脈 is ‘to see’, so boundary markers may also be interpreted as the lines that can be seen to divide a territory into natural regions or domains.


Ke Qin 2009b, p. 218.


Ke Qin 2009b, p. 219.


Ke Qin 2009b, p. 220.


Ke Qin 2009a, p. 351.


Ke Qin 2009b, p. 247.


Yu Xueru 2001a and 2001b.


Wu Zhongping et al., 2000.


Yoshimasu Tōdō 1747.


Lu Yuanlei 1931, Foreword 序, pp. 13–5.


Unschuld 1991, p. 4.


Xu Dachun 1764, p. 164.


Hinrichs 1998.


For a summary, see Scheid 2007b, chapter six.


Zhan 2009, pp. 22–4.


Hayot 2012, p. 40.


Heidegger 1977, p. 130.


  • Diagram of the liver channel of foot jueyin, woodcut illustration from Xu Shi zhenjiu daquan (Mr Xu's Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion), first published in 1439. Wellcome Library, London.
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  • Modern image of Liver channel from from Deadman, Peter and Mazin Al-Khafaji, A Manual of Acupuncture (Hove: Journal of Chinese Medicine Publications, 1998), p. 409.
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  • Modern image of the Pericardium channel. Downloaded from!meridians/c248f on 6 June 2015.
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  • Modern image of the external and internal flow of qi in the Liver channel. Downloaded from!meridians/c248f on 6 June 2015.
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  • The greater yang 太陽 and terminal yin 厥陰 conduits as depicted in Zhu Gong’s Book to Safeguard Life, 1108.
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  • ‘Yang disorders located in the exterior’ (Yangbing zai biao 陽病在表) as depicted in Fang Youzhi’s Critical Essay.
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  • ‘Yin disorders located in the interior’ (Yinbing zai li 陰病在裡) as depicted in Fang Youzhi’s Critical Essay.
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  • Song editions of Zhu Gong’s Book to Safeguard Life depicting the kidney and bladder acupuncture conduits connecting to internal organs.
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  • Yang Jie’s depiction of the body and its organs, Charts of the True Circulatory Vessels (Cunzhen huanzhong tu, 1118).
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  • Late imperial depictions of the body and its organs, example one, from Anon. Lingmen chuanshou tongren zhixue 凌門傳授銅人指穴 (The Lofty Portal Teaching Text of Acupoints on the Bronze Man) Qing. Wellcome Library, London.
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  • Late imperial depictions of the body and its organs, example two, from Li Zhongzi 李中梓, Yizong bidu 醫宗必讀 (Essential Readings in the Medical Lineage, 1637).
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