Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen: Nature, Knowledge, Imagery in an Ancient Chinese Medical Text

By Paul U. Unschuld | Go to book overview

VI
Epilogue: Toward
a Comparative Historical
Anthropology of Medical Thought

1. THE SU WEN: DOCUMENT OF A NEW STYLE OF THOUGHT

The texts collected in the Su wen, as heterogeneous and at times contradictory as they may be, share at least one central feature. They reflect a deliberate break with an older tradition and the genesis of an innovative style of thought that proved to be the seed of a long-lasting new tradition. Briefly, the older tradition comprised a concept of health care on the basis of the firmly established belief that human illness was caused by demons, ancestors, and “bugs”; curing, it was believed, could be achieved by placating ancestors with prayers, by warding off demons with spells and apotropaic substances, and by killing “bugs” by means of pharmaceutical drugs. 1

In stark contrast, the new tradition that evolved from the Su wen refused to assign numinous agents and bugs such a role. It focused on environmental conditions, climatic agents, and behavior as causal in the emergence of disease; on the importance of laws, structures, and morale in the explanation of illness; and, in addition to dietetics, on a new technique, acupuncture, in the prevention and treatment of ailments.

The new therapy system evolved after the unification of the empire in 221 B.C. and found expression in a large pool of texts written between the second century B.C. and the first century a.d., which in turn found entrance into compilations such as the Su wen, the Nan jing, the Ling shu, and the Tai su beginning in the first century a.d. It conveyed images of the human body and theories concerning the functioning of the human organism and its various parts that went far beyond the ideas and the knowledge expressed in the Mawangdui manuscripts and other documents reflecting the status quo of the third and second centuries B.C.

Most important, the texts collected in the Su wen and other Han-era compilations mark the beginning of medicine in China. Chinese civilization had

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