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  • Reproducing Women: Medicine, Metaphor, and Childbirth in Late Imperial China
  • Tina Phillips Johnson
Reproducing Women: Medicine, Metaphor, and Childbirth in Late Imperial China. By Yi-Li Wu (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2010) 362 pp. $49.95

In this well-written and extensively researched work on traditional medicine in late imperial China, Wu examines how medical literature in the Ming and Qing dynasties considered fertility, pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period, collectively referred to as fuke, or medicine for women. Wu presents important findings that contradict earlier interpretations of traditional Chinese medicine. First, late imperial fuke had an optimistic view of women's bodies as fundamentally the same as men's—"simultaneously sexless and sexed" and "governed by the same dynamics of illness and health" (231, 51)—challenging the earlier thesis of a fundamental sex difference. Second, Wu's discussions of the womb contest the common theory that late imperial Chinese medicine focused on function rather than structure, revealing instead the paradigm of a universal body complete with a womb (in both men and women), re-imagined as a universal structure, a life gate, a container, and a crucible for gestation (86). Finally, Wu argues that childbirth was considered inherently safe, though undue interference by humans could interrupt the "cosmologically resonant childbirth" to produce difficulties or death (187).

Wu's sources span centuries and include local gazetteers, collections of medical cases, compendia of prescriptions and formulas, and numerous versions of fuke classics like the Treatise on Easy Childbirth and Bamboo Grove Monastery texts. She acknowledges the wide geographical space and extensive time frame of her study, questioning whether she can legitimately "cite a seventh-century text in the same paragraph as an eighteenth-century one" or "discuss a writer from Sichuan together with an author from Suzhou" (8). In fact, it is this breadth that provides one of the central themes of this book—that these popular and widely circulated texts, largely published by gentlemen amateur medical writers, form the primary corpus of late imperial Chinese medicine. Scholars anthologized and reprinted popular texts, often for prestige or merit, thus providing classic references for centuries to come. The scholars encouraged a drug-based approach to treatment rather than a focus on religious or manual techniques (9).

Reproducing Women is organized into six chapters with an introduction and an epilogue. Each section effectively begins with an illustrative medical case that reveals the chapter's main ideas. Chapter 1, for example, explores the sources of men's medical authority in fuke. To illustrate her point, Wu introduces the case of a woman who was diagnosed as suffering from "stagnation" by one physician and from "depletion" by another. Each physician prescribed and administered drugs specific to his different diagnosis. The one who cured her—of depletion-was Wei Zhixiu, who then collected this story and others like it in a book about medical cases, thereby buttressing his medical authority. [End Page 330]

Chapters 1 and 2 examine this popular amateur medical literature as a distinct genre and as the accepted mode for transmitting medical knowledge and authority. Chapter 3 is a "revisionist reading" of the relationship between function and structure in the human body (13), and Chapters 4 through 6 trace philosophies of fertility, birth, and postpartum, respectively. The epilogue discusses the late Qing Chinese medical writers who turned their criticisms toward foreign obstetrics that they believed contradicted the natural order of the cosmos. It reinforces the idea that medicine is culturally based, and that examining the medical landscape brings broader social issues to light, in this case Qing conservatism and Western imperialism. As the embodiment of many aspects of gender relations, social structure, politics, and philosophy, childbearing was, and is, "the warp on which the fabric of society was woven" (6). [End Page 331]

Tina Phillips Johnson
Saint Vincent College


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