Screenshot 2021-07-13 at 12.11.16

Look to the far left of this busy market, at the shop at the end, and you will see, if you look carefully, a mother with her attendant, bringing her baby for consultation with a physician.

Look again at the intersection on the right side, and you will see a bald figure talking to someone in a black cap – a Buddhist and Daoist in conversation, perhaps about some doctrinal matter, as others brush past them in the hustle and bustle of the day.

Scattered throughout this market, and in more complete images of this long scroll, one can find other practitioners of medicine, herbalists and bonesetters. But also people carrying baskets and trinkets, sellers of food and drink, martial artists and jugglers, attendants and lords and ladies. What roles do they play in the practice and dissemination of medicine, of curing disease, generating well-being?

Until recently, the history of Chinese medicine has been one of genealogies, of histories of texts that were composed or compiled at one point in time, and then edited into different forms by various individuals or groups over time.  It was a history of great books and great men.

But these histories, constructed narratives of elites and their texts, do not do service to the vast majority of healthcare in China, which was practiced by a broad range of people – from family members, first and foremost, to mendicants, herb-sellers, masseurs, cooks, attendants, priests, monks and ascetics.  The tacit excuse for this is that these people left no textual records, and thus we start with the received canons.

In recent years great attention has been paid to medical manuscripts that have been excavated from tombs and other sites, survivals from over 2,000 years ago – and the testimony they give to medicine as practiced outside of the received, elite tradition.  As more texts continue to be excavated, we learn more and more about this.

However, there are received sources in our possession already if we but turn to them and read them in a new way. If we turn to the religious literature of China – the Daoist and Buddhist canons, for example, it turns out there is a vast treasure trove of information about health practices – from meditation, physical exercise and diet, to rituals, talismans and incantations.  To say nothing of the transcendents, priests and monks who used herbal medicine, acupuncture and moxibustion. This literature, at least in the Six Dynasties period (六朝 220-589), vastly outnumbers the surviving medical literature, and yet has remained little examined for the history of medicine.

In some ways, this is quite representative, because the record agrees that religious figures – Daoists, mediums, adepts of transcendence, Buddhist priests, monks and monastic institutions – were much much more active in the provision of medicine and healthcare to the general populace than the thin narrow band of elite doctors.  There were more of them, they served wider sectors of the population, and they were more widespread.

Scholars of religion look for, quite naturally, religion, in their sources.  Extraordinary subjective experiences, pantheons, scriptural canons, liturgical schemas, initiation, community rites. Scholars of medicine focus on the material practices, theoretical history and their socio-political implications. We have only begun to unpack the material in these scriptures for their medical content, and there is a rich journey ahead.

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