Illness, Threat and Systems of Authority in Dunhuang

In: Inner Asia
Author: Lewis Mayo
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This paper analyses the relationships between illness and structures of authority in the oasis of Dunhuang in the late 20th century and during the time of the Guiyijun regime which ruled the area as an independent warlord state from the middle of the 9th to the beginning of the 11th century. Both the medieval and the modern systems for dealing with illness in Dunhuang are analysed here as part of a larger problem of threat as an inherent element in any order of authority. In this paper, illness is taken as a political and administrative problem, both in the sense that political forces are mobilised around it and in the sense that political and administrative structures give illness an organisational form. Guiyijun systems of storage and structures of governance in the political and familial realms are understood as the reference point for the strategies deployed in the face of illness ‘events’ and as explanatory frameworks closely linked to accounts of dysfunction in the internal order of the body. The late 20th century order of disease management in Dunhuang forms a counterpart to these medieval structures, despite the major differences in the forms for responding to and attacking illness in the oasis in the public health regimes of the modern era and in the medical and ceremonial practices used a millennium before.

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