CHINA HERITAGE NEWSLETTER China Heritage Project, The Australian National University
ISSN 1833-8461
No. 3, September 2005


Conference on Chinese Medicine | China Heritage Quarterly


Judith Farquhar

A medical dilemma occasioned by cravings for health. From the cartoonist Tsai Chih Chung's (Cai Zhizhong) Hou Xiyou ji, Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 1993.

A three-day conference on the history of visual representation in Chinese medicine, jointly sponsored by the China Institute for the History of Medicine (China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine) and the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine (University College, London), was held in Beijing on 14-18 September, 2005. Under the skilled and generous management of Vivienne Lo (Wellcome Centre) and Wang Shumin (China Academy), upwards of 60 international participants heard and saw 45 lavishly-illustrated papers on a wide variety of historical topics.

The papers fell into four main categories:

(1) Discussion of particular problems in the history of Chinese medicine in which the presentation was supplemented with slides. One example was a report by Li Shang-jen (Academia Sinica, Taiwan) on the medical activities of missionary doctor Patrick Manson, who studied filariasis on Xiamen at the beginning of the 20th century. Another beautifully illustrated talk was given by Ma Kanwen (Wellcome Centre) on his 1950s travels in search of local traces of a number of famous figures in the history of Chinese medicine.

(2) Surveys and catalogs of illustrations drawn from the history of medicine in China. Papers in this category were the most numerous, and added much to participants' understanding of previously unnoted visual riches in various collections of medical works. Paul Unschuld, for example, surveyed a large group of hand-copied manuscripts dating from the 18th to the early 20th century, showing that these privately circulated books used a wide range of pictorial styles. Perhaps the most enjoyable paper of this type was given by Ma Jixing of the China Academy of Chinese Medicine, who also served as honorary chair of the conference. Ma offered up a dizzying survey of many modern appropriations of the name and image of Shen Nong, the "Divine Farmer" credited with inventing herbal medicine by "tasting the hundred herbs." A paper by Zhu Jianping, also of the China Academy, is another example; he showed a systematically analyzed series of gymnastic diagrams spanning several centuries, some as early as the Warring States period.

(3) Historical studies exploring ways to do history through the study of illustrations. These papers focused on the adequacy or shortcomings of pictures as a type of historical document, evaluating the degree of transparency of illustrations in efforts to grasp social reality. Thus, for example, Asaf Goldschmidt (University of Tel Aviv) provided a careful analysis of the changing conventions of medical illustration during the Song dynasty, arguing that changing degrees of government interest in medical education, and the rise and decline of medical academies, could be discerned in the conventions of innovation and neo-traditionalism of illustrations. A somewhat different example was the discussion provided by Yi-li Wu (Albion College) in which she tried to assess the gender of technical illustrations in the Yizong Jinjian (Golden Mirror of Medicine). Wu's paper stimulated considerable discussion of the possibly superficial androgyny of many traditional medical sources.

(4) Papers considering methods of reading and using visual materials in historical and sociological work. Yi-li Wu's discussion also touched on this area, as did Judith Farquhar's (University of Chicago) presentation on modern "cartoon classics" of Chinese medicine. But the most dramatic discussion of methods of reading images came from Shigehisa Kuriyama, who presented a short film he had made about the relationships of bodies to atmospheres (in several sense of the word) in medical illustrations in China and Japan. Using digital editing techniques that drew attention to details of the pictures and creatively juxtaposed images, Kuriyama's film was an education in how to see historical illustrations. Also notable in this regard was Volker Scheid's (Westminster College, University of London) critical discussion of the increasing (since the 1950s) use of flow charts and diagrams in Chinese medical teaching and publishing. His talk drew attention in a very effective way to the socially productive power of images as they work to alter practical, clinical realities. A central theme of the conference was the globalization of Chinese medicine. A keynote address by Harold Cook, Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre, situated methodological and contextual issues in the study of the history of medicine within an innovative literature of globalization. Papers by Chang Che-chia (Academia Sinica, Taiwan), Roberta Bivins (University of Cardiff ), Li Shang-jen (mentioned above), and Chen Ming (Peking University) all served to remind participants that the history of Chinese medicine has not been confined to China.

Judith Farquhar is Professor of Anthropology and of the Social Sciences in the College, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago. She is the author of Appetites: Food and Sex in Post-Socialist China (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), and her most recent publication is "Biopolitical Beijing: Pleasure, Sovereignty and Self-Cultivation in China's Capital", Cultural Anthropology, Summer 2005.