Rediscovering Medical Antiquity in China

All day
Through June 8, 2018
The University of Chicago Center in Beijing
Culture Plaza 20th Floor
59A Zhongguancun Street
Haidian District, Beijing, 100872

Jun. 7

Organized by:

Donald Harper, University of Chicago

Qicheng Zhang, Beijing University of Chinese Medicine






In recognition of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)'s remaining un-probed potential as a source of medical revelation, the University of Chicago Center in Beijing and the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine co-organized a conference from June 7-8, 2018, entitled "Rediscovering Medical Antiquity in China." At the conference, 20 experts gathered to share and present their research with the goal of discussing ancient medical texts and their various interpretations, while drawing upon "the expertise of participants in their various fields, ranging from ancient historical study to anthropological fieldwork."

Professor Zhang Qicheng, Dean of the Chinese Classics School at Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, and Professor Donald Harper, Centennial Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Chicago, gave the opening remarks at the conference. Professor Zhang began with an overview of the conference's creation, citing University of Chicago Center in Beijing Faculty Director Judith Farquhar's efforts in conceptualizing the conference as well as the support he received via a grant from The National Social Science Fund of China. Professor Harper, in explaining the goals of the conference, expressed his hope that interpreting recently excavated historical artifacts to trace the development and evolution of ancient medical practices could, in turn, inform our understanding of the possible future paths of medical innovation.  Zhang echoed these sentiments, and emphasized the importance of the conference's interdisciplinary and transnational nature in creating a range of perspectives unbounded by preconceived restrictions in thought, with nine scholars representing foreign universities and eleven representing Chinese universities.

In order to better understand TCM as it exists today, the first panel of the conference focused on the history and development of TCM's five central theories. The first two panelists, Dr. Gu Man, deputy-director of the Department of Chinese Medical Literature at the China Institute for the History of Medicine and Medical Literature, and Professor Liu Changhua, the Academic Head of the Discipline of Chinese Medical Literature, argued that the origins of the meridian system could be traced back to early medical scriptures passed on by Bianque and Conggong, two famous Ancient Chinese physicians. Specifically, they focused on the similarity between the concept of “Tongtian,” or life relating to the heavens, found in medical manuscripts excavated from a Western Han Dynasty cemetery in Chengdu and Bianque’s “five-color vessel diagnosis.” Professor Zhang built on this further by examining how Western Han Dynasty lacquered sculptures of the human figure also helped lay the foundation for the early development of meridian theory by showing acupoints and meridians. His argument was that these early figures and models are useful for studying how Ancient TCM is of Xiang-Shu thought by understanding the human body’s relationship to nature through the concept of Qi. Afterwards, Cho Yongjun, a full-time lecturer in the department of Ancient Chinese History at Renmin University, and Dr. Li Chengwei, an associate professor at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, traced the development of the other four central theories of TCM back to the Pre-Qin Period. They argued that the theory of Zang-Fu organs, the study of Chinese Materia Medica, acupuncture therapy, and the theory of health preservation were a product of the symbiotic relationship between specialized medical treatment and mediumistic superstitious treatment spearheaded by shamans in the Zhou Dynasty.

The second panel of the conference examined how the foundational ideas discussed at the beginning of the day translated to various medical practices in ancient China. First, Professor Harper and Vivienne Lo, Director of the China Center for Health and Humanity at University College London, examined how meridian theory, acupuncture therapy, and the theory of Zang-Fu organs all came together in the markings on a lacquer medical figurine excavated from the Tianhui Han tomb in Laoguanshan. Professor Harper focused on a textual analysis of the graphs inscribed on the figurine, particularly with regard to Daoist "ideas about the relationship between the human body and the cosmos." Lo argued that analyzing the technical and artistic process that went into creating the figurine is useful for understanding how these ideas were received and transformed over time. Next, Li Jiming, a professor at the Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, examined how acupuncture therapy gradually became increasingly systematized, analyzing bamboo slips excavated from the Laoguanshan Han tomb. Li argued that these slips reveal that “a complete system of clinical syndrome differentiation and treatment was established at least in the pre-Qin period.” Lastly, the panelists looked at how the theory of health preservation became institutionalized under the Sui government when the study of daoyin, or Chinese therapeutic exercises, was given a dedicated department within the medical education institute. Daoyin eventually became the most widely used form of state medicine, and it is still practiced today. In studying the development of early TCM techniques like acupuncture therapy and Daoyin, the panelists hoped to better understand some of the systems in place today.

Day Two of the conference began with an exploration of different reading strategies that could be used to extract new meaning from ancient medical texts. The first to speak was Zeng Yukun, a third-year PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, who presented a joint work conducted with Professor Farquhar, entitled, “Contemporaries Reread Chinese Medical Classics.” They focused on understanding the relationship between reader and author by examining how certain medical texts require particular modes of analysis/reading, and examined interpretations of texts concerning the “efficacy of the Five Flavors” to show how certain ways of (re)reading texts “invoke an entailed social [relationship between] writer and reader.” In doing so, they hoped to “consider how assumptions about the nature and activities of ‘the way’ and the inter-transformative 'myriad things' are re-actualized in ways of reading Chinese medical classics.” Next, the panel sought to attenuate confusion that exists amongst researchers about different spellings of “fei” in an important medical text with the hope reconstructing the medical history of the Warring States and Qin and Han Dynasties. Finally, they clarified the previously enigmatic textual history of Zhouhou beiji fang, and subsequently shed light on the methods, techniques, and drugs used by Ge Hong, a Jin Dynasty scholar, believing that TCM practitioners today still have much to learn from him. The panelists hoped that by achieving a more thorough and accurate understanding of these different medical texts, they would be able to fully unleash the texts’ potential to contribute to modern medicine. 

The fourth and final panel of the conference strove to deepen the audience’s understanding of the history of ailments and treatments in Ancient China, an understanding which is currently fraught with misinformation and misconceptions. The panelists argued that clarifying the history of how Ancient Chinese medicine classified, diagnosed, and treated diseases could improve current techniques for accomplishing the same goal. First, the panelists pursued an epistemological examination of early translations of the Compendium of Materia Medica, a volume on Chinese herbology, to better understand how they shaped Western discourse on Chinese medicine for centuries. They then parsed the way in which drug names were used as puns in a dialogue in the Dunhuang Story of Wu Zixu in order to analyze the impact that the Materia Medica had on Ancient Chinese culture. Lastly, the panel sought to combat overly reductive understandings of drug use in Ancient China by moving beyond terms such as “Daoist medicine” or “narrative medicine.” More specifically, Dr. Michael Stanley-Baker, an assistant professor in the history program at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, argued that “taking drugs in the Six Dynasties took on a variety of meanings beyond their simple value as therapeutic care… The act of taking drugs situated the eater within a broad network of connections and meanings.” In combating these reductive understandings and achieving a more holistic understanding of the medical and cultural history of ailments and drugs in Ancient China, the panel helped fulfill the conference’s greater goal of teaching valuable lessons about TCM and cultivating skills through the analysis of alternate medical systems that have untold applicability for modern medical innovations.

The University of Chicago Center in Beijing is extremely happy to have hosted such wonderful speakers who travelled far and wide to present and helped contribute to the Center’s goal of promoting the sharing of ideas among scholars and intellectuals from all over the world. The Center looks forward to hosting future conferences to not only increase collaboration between The University of Chicago and Chinese institutions, but also to continue building interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, and cross generational bridges.


Michael Hellie
UChicago '22