Documenting Medications: Patients’ Demand, Physicians’ Virtuosity, and Genre-Mixing of Prescription-Cases (Fang’an) in Seventeenth-Century China


In: Early Science and Medicine

Xianxingzhai guang biji (‘Expanded Notes from the Studio of Early Enlightenment’) is a Chinese medical case collection based primarily on the interaction between the physician Miao Xiyong and his patients. Professional interest alone, however, cannot explain the unique combination of cases with detailed prescriptions. Rather, elite patients played a crucial role in collecting and publishing these cases, driven in part by the need to prepare their own medications at home. Physicians then reciprocated by sharing their prescriptions for patronage, thereby fashioning a more flexible style of medical virtuosity. Finally, both patients and physicians grappled with the unbounded possibilities and dangers presented by novel illnesses and cures. This episode anticipates the consolidation of recipe-cases (fang’an) as a stable didactic genre by the eighteenth century.


  • 5

     Ding Yuanjian, “Preface,” Xianxingzhai biji (Preface 1613, Rare Book collection, Library of Congress) (hereafter XXJBJ). Ding signed his preface with a date in 1613, whereas the inclusion of the 1615 case of stroke suggests that the actual printing did not take place until later.

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  • 7

     Zhuang Jiguang, “Epilogue (1623),” in Miao, GBJ, 165-6. More than two centuries later the local gazetteer of Changxing still recognizes Ding as the book’s author. See Changxing xian zhi [Gazetteer of Changxing District], 32 juan. (Tongzhi edition, Zhejiang, 1892), 29.34b.

  • 8

     Gianna Pomata, “The Medical Case Narrative: Distant Reading of an Epistemic Genre,” Literature and Medicine, 32.1 (Spring 2014), 1-23.

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  • 10

     Gianna Pomata, “The Recipe and the Case: Epistemic Genres and the Dynamics of Cognitive Practices,” in Wissenschaftsgeschichte und Geschichte des Wissens im Dialog/Connecting Science and Knowledge, eds. Kaspar von Greyerz, Silvia Flubacher, and Philipp Senn (Göttingen: Vanderhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), 131-54.

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  • 11

     Joanna Grant, A Chinese Physician: Wang Ji and the “Stone Mountain Medical Case Histories” (London: Routledge, 2003); Christopher Cullen, “Yi’an (case statements): the Origins of a Genre of Chinese Medical Literature,” in Innovations in Chinese Medicine, ed. ­Elizabeth Hsu (Cambridge, 2001), 297-324.

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  • 15

     Gianna Pomata and Marta Hanson, “Medicinal Formulas and Experiential Knowledge in the Seventeenth-Century Epistemic Exchange between China and Europe,” Isis (forthcoming). I thank the authors for sharing their manuscript with me.

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  • 17

     Cf. Elaine Leong, “Making Medicines in the Early Modern Household,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 82.1 (2008), 145-68; Alisha Rankin, Panaceia’s Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany (Chicago, 2013).

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  • 27

     Li Zhi, “Preface (1642),” in Miao, GBJ, 5.

  • 50

     Miao, GBJ,155.

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