The Trouble with Wang Xizhi: Illness and Healing in a Fourth-Century Chinese Correspondence


In: T'oung Pao

Containing many reports of his own illnesses and attempts at treatment, along with inquiries after the health of correspondents and acquaintances, the letters of Wang Xizhi (303-361) constitute the earliest sizeable corpus of personal health reports in Chinese literature and are thus a valuable source for the study of Chinese epistolary communication and medical history. This article explores the rhetorical strategies of Wang’s medical narratives and the role that writing about illness and healing may have played in the correspondents’ relationships and broader networks. Examining the medical ideas and terminology evident in Wang Xizhi’s letters, the article also seeks to illuminate a section of the multifaceted world of early medieval Chinese healing practices. By allowing us to get closer to the calligrapher’s body, Wang’s illness narratives further help us to heighten our awareness of the circumstances that shape the artistic process.


Les lettres de Wang Xizhi (303-361) contiennent de nombreuses informations sur ses propres problèmes médicaux et sur ses façons de se traiter, ainsi que des questions adressées aux destinataires quant à leur santé et celle de leurs connaissances communes. Elles constituent ainsi le plus ancien corpus de taille conséquente au sein de la littérature chinoise traitant de l’histoire médicale d’individus ; elles ont donc une valeur importante comme source tant pour l’histoire épistolaire que médicale. Cet article explore les stratégies rhétoriques dans les récits qu’offre Wang au sujet de la santé, ainsi que le rôle que ses écrits sur les maladies et les guérisons ont pu jouer dans ses rapports sociaux avec ses correspondants et au-delà. En examinant les idées et la terminologie médicale exprimées dans les lettres de Wang Xizhi, cet article ambitionne aussi d’éclairer un pan du monde très varié des pratiques de guérison chinoises médiévales. Ses témoignages sur ses maladies, qui nous permettent d’approcher de près le grand calligraphe dans sa corporalité, nous rendent plus attentif aux conditions les plus physiques de sa production artistique.


  • 4

     Antje Richter“Beyond Calligraphy: Reading Wang Xizhi’s Letters,” T’oung Pao 96 (2011): 370-407.

  • 12

     See e.g. Robert E. Harrist“Copies, All the Way Down: Notes on the Early Transmission of Calligraphy by Wang Xizhi,” East Asian Library Journal 10 (2001): 176-96; and “Replication and Deception in Calligraphy of the Six Dynasties Period” in Chinese Aesthetics: The Ordering of Literature the Arts and the Universe in the Six Dynasties ed. Cai Zong-qi (Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai’i Press 2004) 31-59. See also Richter “Beyond Calligraphy” 372-74.

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  • 32

     See Richter“Beyond Calligraphy” 391-92; Qi Xiaochun Shan yin dao shang 85-88.

  • 55

     See RichterLetters and Epistolary Culture79-93.

  • 80

     See SivinTraditional Medicine102-6; Paul U. Unschuld Medicine in China: A History of Ideas (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press 1985) 34-50.

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  • 101

     See Asaf Goldschmidt“Epidemics and Medicine during the Northern Song Dynasty: The Revival of Cold Damage Disorders (Shanghan),” T’oung Pao 93 (2007): 90-93.

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  • 104

     See e.g.Suwen 31.250-56.

  • 138

     See Terry F. KleemanCelestial Masters: History and Ritual in Early Daoist Communities (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Asia Center2016) esp. 209-18. See also Lothar Ledderose “Some Taoist Elements in the Calligraphy of the Six Dynasties” T’oung Pao 70 (1984): 246-78; Qi Xiaochun Mai shi zhi feng 505-84.

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  • 139

     See Nathan Sivin“Health Care and Daoism,” Daoism: Religion History and Society 1 (2011): 11-14; and chapter 5 in Jiang Sheng 姜生 and Tang Weixia 湯偉俠 eds. Zhongguo daojiao kexue jishu shi: Han Wei liang Jin juan 中國道教科學技術史:漢魏兩晉卷 (Beijing: Kexue chubanshe 2002) esp. 557-92.

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  • 142

     Cullen“Patients and Healers in Late Imperial China” 100. See also Arthur Kleinman’s pioneering work on coexisting systems of health care in 1970s Taiwan in Patients and Healers in the Context of Culture: An Exploration of the Borderland between Anthropology Medicine and Psychiatry (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press 1980); and Li Jianmin “They Shall Expel Demons.”

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  • 148

     See KleemanCelestial Masters371.

  • 156

     See Robert Ford Campany“The Meaning of Cuisines of Transcendence in Late Classical and Early Medieval China,” T’oung Pao 91 (2005): 1-57 and Making Transcendents: Ascetics and Social Memory in Early Medieval China (Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai’i Press 2009) 62-87.

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  • 164

     See e.g.Jingui yaolüe 17.513.

  • 192

     Stanley“The Epistolarium” 203.

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