Summary of Imagining Chinese Medicine


This book provides a comprehensive exploration of the visual culture of Chinese medicine, tracing its evolution over two millennia, from ancient tomb figurines and early medical manuscripts to the intricate illustrations in medieval pharmacopoeias and the marketing of modern medicines. The authors investigate the ways in which artists, scholars, and practitioners have imagined the body and its health, employing a range of visual representations to encode, transmit, and challenge medical knowledge across time, place, and cultures.

The book is divided into six parts, each focusing on a different aspect of the visual culture of medicine. Part one explores the ways in which images structure space, time, and gender, and how they function as medical maps and guides to action. Part two examines the complex relationship between medical illustration and the practice of medicine, including the use of images to standardise knowledge, to depict the inside of the body, and to make sense of esoteric concepts. Part three investigates how images have been used to represent different aspects of medical practice, including the gathering and preparation of medicines, the treatment of specific ailments, and the interaction between healers and patients. Part four focuses on the transmission of medical knowledge across cultural boundaries, analyzing the influence of Chinese medicine on Tibetan and Persian medical traditions. Part five explores the intersection of medicine and esoteric traditions, including Daoism and Tibetan Buddhism. Finally, part six examines the role of visual imagery in modern medicine, tracing the impact of Western medicine on Chinese medical practices and the use of visual culture to market medicines.


  • Ancient tomb figurines provide valuable insights into early Chinese medical knowledge. The Shuangbaoshan 双包山 figurine, dating back to the Western Han Dynasty, features red lacquer lines that may represent early channels.
  • Moxibustion was a widespread practice in China and Tibet long before the development of acupuncture. The earliest extant moxibustion charts come from the Dunhuang 敦煌 manuscripts, dating back to the 9th century.
  • The earliest known depictions of foetal development appear in the Ishimpō 醫心方, a 10th-century Japanese compilation of Chinese medical texts. These illustrations show the foetus growing monthly inside the pregnant woman’s body.
  • Early Chinese medicine was not limited to purely secular practices. Ancient texts and illustrations reflect the intersection of medicine with religious and magical beliefs.
  • Visual androcentrism was a dominant feature of Chinese medical illustration. The Yuzuan yizong jinjian 御纂醫宗 金鑑, a large-scale 18th-century medical text, prominently features male figures, while women are only depicted in contexts specifically related to female ailments.
  • Images of the body have played an important role in the early Western reception of acupuncture. These images often adapted to Western iconographic conventions, while also preserving essential features of the technique, such as the jingluo 經絡.
  • The concept of the human spirit (renshen 人神) circulating through the body in accordance with the lunar cycle is a prominent feature of both Chinese and Tibetan medicine.
  • The Tibetan medical tradition places a significant emphasis on divination. This is reflected in the inclusion of magic squares, trigrams, and astrological cycles within Tibetan medical illustrations.
  • The Mongol Empire facilitated the transmission of medical knowledge between China and the West. Rashīd al-Dīn (1247–1318) translated Chinese medical texts into Persian, including images of the internal organs and the circulation of blood.
  • The use of auspicious and religious imagery is a distinctive feature of Chinese medical illustrations. The Golden Mirror (Yuzuan yizong jinjian 御纂醫宗金鑑) uses images of Daoist immortals and deities to convey the efficacy of the male doctor.
  • The practice of ‘Great Perfection’ (Dzogchen), a key school of Tibetan Buddhism, involves rigorous body-based practices. The Lukhang murals, a series of 17th-century paintings, depict the yogic movements and meditations used in Dzogchen.
  • The development of modern medicine in China was shaped by both scientific and political forces. The government encouraged the study of Chinese medicine and the development of public health campaigns.
  • Early 20th-century China saw a boom in the marketing of medicines, with both foreign and domestic products vying for a share of the market. These products were often advertised through a combination of Western imagery and traditional Chinese concepts, such as the use of Daoist symbolism and testimonials from prominent figures.


  • There are over 10,000 images of medicinal substances in existing Chinese materia medica texts.
  • Nearly half of the 484 images in the Golden Mirror are gendered as male, and only 12 are female.
  • Emperor Chengzu (Yongle, r. 1402–24), commissioned the Yongle Dadian 永樂大典 (Yongle Encyclopaedia or Yongle Canon), which included over 3,700,000,000 Chinese characters.
  • Prince Zhu Su 朱橚, the fifth son of the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty, personally supervised the cultivation of over 414 medicinal plants in a botanical garden. All of these plants were then illustrated.
  • Bencao pinhui jingyao 本草品彙精要 (Classified Treasury of Materia Medica) contains 1,815 medicinal entries and 1,360 polychrome illustrations.
  • There are 866 human figures depicted in Buyi Lei Gong paozhi bianlan 補遺雷公炮製便覽 (Lei Gong’s Guide to Drug Preparation with Addenda).
  • The Dunhuang Mogao Caves 莫高窟 (Thousand Buddha Caves 千佛洞) contains over 200 excavated and restored grottos.
  • There are over 100 images of the Medicine Buddha (Bhaiṣajya-guru) in the Mogao Grottos.
  • The collection of medical manuscripts discovered at Dunhuang includes over 100 texts related to medicine, as well as a few texts in Tibetan and Khotanese.
  • Over 12,000 texts on Chinese medicine were published before 1949, including 629 works on external medicine and traumatology.
  • The Tang dynasty, according to government records, employed 200 medical staff in the Imperial Medical Office (Taiyi shu 太醫署).
  • Over 1,500 patent medicines were on sale in Korea by the 1920s.
  • The Yuhan Corporation, founded in 1926, is one of the largest and most successful pharmaceutical companies in South Korea.
  • The Ladies’ Journal (Funü zazhi 婦女雜誌) published over 900 advertisements for patent medicines during its 17 years of publication (1915–31).


  • Bencao 本草 (Materia Medica): Refers to the body of knowledge regarding materia medica, and to specific Materia Medica or Pharmacopoeia texts.
  • Daoyin 導引 (Guiding and Pulling [of Qi]): Refers to a form of therapeutic exercise practiced in ancient China, often involving mimicking animal movements, for restoring health and alleviating ailments.
  • Dzogchen rDzogs chen (Great Perfection): A school of Tibetan Buddhism that emphasizes the innate, non-dual nature of consciousness and the practice of ‘self-liberation’ rather than ritualistic transformation.
  • Fangzhong shu 房中術 (Arts of the Bedchamber): Refers to a genre of ancient Chinese literature that deals with sexual techniques for promoting health and longevity, often drawing on the principles of Daoism and yangsheng.
  • Hetu 河圖 (River Diagram): A mythical Chinese diagram that represents the order of the cosmos and its relationship to the Five Agents (五行).
  • Jiaoqi 脚氣 (Beriberi): A thiamine deficiency disease known in ancient China and attributed to the accumulation of Qi 氣 in the lower body.
  • Jingluo 經絡 (Channels and Networks): A complex network of pathways in the human body that, according to Chinese medicine, govern the flow of Qi and blood, and serve as a basis for acupuncture.
  • Jingmai 經脈 (Circulation Channels and Vessels): Similar to jingluo, these pathways are also located within the body.
  • Jiu 灸 (Cautery, Moxibustion): The application of heat therapy, often using mugwort (ai艾), to specific points on the body to stimulate Qi 氣 and alleviate illness.
  • Mingtang 明堂 (Bright Hall): A traditional Chinese architectural space, often depicted in paintings, symbolizing the cosmos and the relationship between the emperor and the people. It is also used in acupuncture to denote the human body and the interconnectedness of channels.
  • Neidan 內丹 (Internal Alchemy): A school of Daoist alchemy that focuses on refining the inner elixirs of life within the body, using meditation and breath control.
  • Neijing 內景 (Inner Landscape): The inner space of the body as it is visualised in Daoist alchemy, containing a network of channels, organs, and spirits.
  • Qigong 氣功 (Merits achieved through breathing [techniques]): A system of breathing and movement exercises for cultivating health and promoting mental wellbeing.
  • Renshen 人神 (Human Spirit): A spiritual force that, according to Chinese medicine, flows through the body and is vulnerable to disturbances from external factors.
  • rGyud bzhi (Four Tantras) (bDud rtsi snying po yan lag brgyad pa gsang ba man ngag gi rgyud): The four major tantric medical texts of Tibetan medicine.
  • Shunga 春画: A genre of Japanese erotic art, often featuring exaggerated depictions of the sexual act.
  • Taiji 太極 (Grand Ultimate): A key concept in Daoist philosophy, representing the unified origin of Yin and Yang and the duality of the cosmos.
  • Wuzang 五臟 (Five Viscera): The five major internal organs of the body: Heart, Liver, Spleen, Lungs and Kidneys.
  • Zangfu 臟腑 (Internal Viscera): The internal organs of the body, divided into the five zang (臟) and six fu (腑).
  • Waike 外科 (External Medicine): A branch of Chinese medicine focused on the treatment of external diseases, such as wounds, sores, and skin ailments.
  • Waidan 外丹 (External Alchemy): A school of Daoist alchemy that focuses on the physical refinement of elixirs through chemical processes.
  • Wuxing 五行 (Five Agents): The five elements of Chinese cosmogony: Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth.
  • Yangsheng 養生 (Nourishing Life): A philosophy of health and longevity that encompasses diet, exercise, sexual practices, and moral conduct, and that aims at achieving harmony between the individual and the cosmos.


  • The earliest known complete diagram of the human body identified as ‘Mingtang’ 明堂 (Illuminated Hall or Bright Hall) is preserved in a 9th-century Dunhuang manuscript. The word ‘Mingtang’ is written above the image, marking it out as a title.
  • The earliest extant diagram of the vulva is found among the Mawangdui 馬王堆 medical manuscripts.
  • In the late 19th-century, the Japanese patent medicine Chūshōtō 中將湯 (Chūshō’s Decoction) was marketed to Chinese women through advertisements emphasizing its ability to promote fertility.
  • The Golden Mirror (Yuzuan yizong jinjian 御纂醫宗金鑑, 1742) includes a series of illustrations of smallpox eruptions (douzhen 痘疹) that borrow heavily from the popular visual genre of baizi tu 百子圖 (‘pictures of a hundred boys’).
  • The Lukhang murals feature a variety of yogic exercises (’khrul ’khor) from Pema Lingpa’s treasure text ‘Compendium of Enlightened Spontaneity’ (Rdzogs chen kun bzang dgongs’dus). One of the most prominent illustrations shows a figure performing the ‘vajra posture’ (rdo rje’i ‘dug stang).
  • In the early 20th century, the Nationalist government sponsored a series of ‘Healthy Baby Contests’ (jiankang ertong jingsai 健康兒童競賽) to promote public health and eugenics. These contests emphasized the importance of physical appearance and the need to create a healthy, strong future generation.

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