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

A New Perspective on the History of Chinese Medicine

Jianmin Li

Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica

This paper outlines a research project which studies the primordial form of classical Chinese medical knowledge and its later development around the third century A.D. by examining its three key institutions: confidential teaching of medical texts, attribution of medical knowledge to legendary figures, and canons of medical classics.

The transmission of ancient Chinese medical knowledge was characterized in part by the confidential teaching of texts, epitomized by the master’s ritual conferral of secret medical texts upon his disciples. This conferral of texts served to confirm the master-disciple relationship and to distinguish physicians that shared the same teachings from other physicians. The ritual of the conferral of texts thus united a distinctive body of texts, the identity of the physicians’ lineage, and medical experience characteristic of particular medical training, a unity that probably disintegrated around the Han and Wei dynasties. Thereafter practitioners of Daoist medicine identified their school with a master, ancient or recent, whom they followed, whereas physicians of established medical families distinguished themselves by their consanguinity as well as recipes derived from their ancestors. Meanwhile, medical knowledge became public, in the sense that medical learning was made possible though the public availability of medical texts, now dissociated from the secrecy bonds between the master and his disciples. The more public nature of modern knowledge accommodated the reliance of medical teaching on the text. Xie Guan (1880-1950) suggested that Chinese medicine gradually modeled itself on Confucianism. The increasing reliance of medical teaching on the text indeed confirmed that Chinese medicine leaned toward Confucian learning concerning the ways in which knowledge was conveyed, while moving away from the school of Daoist thought (Daojia) or Daoist religion (Daojiao).

Ancient medical knowledge owed its supposed sanctity to its attribution to legendary figures, especially the Sacred Men (shengren, or sages). Medical knowledge in texts was often introduced in the form of dialogues between two sages. Reflecting the practitioners’ historical understanding of their own learning, the attribution of the sources of their knowledge to sages was used to show the genealogy of their techniques and to create a tradition of learning. The dialogue form gradually consolidated itself as a formula of presenting knowledge in medical texts from the Neijing to the Nanjing. Closely related to this form of medical discourse was the practice of reading and the transcription of medical texts, themes to be explored in the light of studies on the cultural history of literary genre, reading, and the circulation of texts.

Chinese medical canons emerged in the Wei and Jin dynasties when medical authors, by editing and compiling of available medical texts, produced orthodox medical knowledge and redrew the boundaries of medicine. The canonization of Chinese medical texts can be elucidated by examining two of its constituent developments. One was the constant reediting of the Neijing and the texts associated with it. The other was the formation of the commentary tradition on medical classics such as the Neijing.

Thus around the third century A.D. the discourse and transmission of medical knowledge underwent fundamental changes in China. Following the decline of the ritual conferral of secret texts, textual knowledge of medicine became public and medical instruction increasingly relied on the text; medical knowledge was presented in formulaic dialogues between ancient sages or legendary figures, characters used to impart authority to the content; and medical canons emerged after selective editorial and commentary work. It is these fundamental changes in the intellectual, social, and institutional character of medical knowledge that the new perspective of this research project proposes to address.


Keywords: early Chinese medicine, knowledge transmission, attribution of medical knowledge, medical canons