2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

Forbidden but Efficacious: Woman’s Body in the Medicine of Early Imperial China

Jen-der Lee

Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica

Women were forbidden in the process of making medicine in early imperial China. Earlier scholars focused their explanation of such taboo on the pollution of women’s blood, either menstruation or afterbirth. A scrutiny over the medical texts, however, suggests a more complicated story. Granted that menstruating women and new mothers were sometimes listed with the handicapped and the newly-orphaned ones, more often they were also enrolled with chickens, dogs, and simply children. A woman was forbidden altogether because of her temporary impediment and of her transitory position. It was considered inevitable for her to be unclean both due to her physical condition and her social role. As the list of prohibition grew over time, woman in fact stood alone as an independent category. Seen as a kind of threat in the process of making medicine, she was not only disallowed to collect and hold herbs but also warned not to touch the medicine for her own use lest it should lose its efficacy.

Interestingly, although the presence of a woman reduced the efficacy of some herbal medicine, her body however helped men who cultivated life nourishment to achieve immortality. Human body parts had a long tradition in materia medica. Medical texts of early imperial China included menstruation blood, stained underwear, vagina hair, and even the private parts of women to cure various kinds of wounds, toxic disorders and especially men’s sexual ailments. Although general principles of human medicine advised men and women to include hair and clothes of the opposite sex in the formula, the art of the bedchamber, which at this time was categorized as medical knowledge, provided only men with particular techniques to select and to inspect women who were most useful to form the recipes of longevity. Just as its being rejected in concocting the formula, woman’s body was applied as a whole instead of as parts to warrant the efficacy of medicine. In effect, her body was the medicine.


Keywords: women’s body, forbidden, efficacy, recipes, art of the bedchamber