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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 75.1 (2001) 121-123

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Book Reviews

Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts

Donald J. Harper, trans. and study. Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts. The Sir Henry Wellcome Asian Series. London: Kegan Paul International, 1998. 549 pp. Ill. $144.50; £85.00.

Scholarship on the Mawangdui manuscripts is revolutionizing our understanding of early Chinese medical history, and we are fortunate to have a scholar of Donald Harper's caliber to bring the revolution to us. Early Chinese Medical Literature is an excellent introduction to the medicine of China in the fourth to second centuries b.c.e. Harper presents a rigorous, carefully considered historical [End Page 121] analysis and translation of the medical manuscripts buried with their owner in 168 b.c.e. and unearthed in Mawangdui, Hunan, in 1973. Although studies of these texts exist in Chinese and Japanese, and Harper has written a Ph.D. dissertation and articles on portions of them, this book is the first of its kind in a Western language, making all the texts and this scholarship available to a wider Western audience.

Before these texts were unearthed, the earliest extant medical text from China was the Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor (or Yellow Thearch), compiled in the first century b.c.e. This is the pre-eminent canonical text of the literate Chinese medical traditions, and presents a largely coherent and singular view of the body's relation to cosmology, vessel-theory physiology, and acupuncture therapy. Prior to the availability of published reproductions of and scholarship on the Mawangdui manuscripts, evidence for the practice of medicine before the appearance of the Inner Canon, for the development of Inner Canon theory, and for other styles of medicine was fragmentary. With the continued unearthing of texts and advances in scholarship, we are beginning to get a richer picture.

In addition to annotated translations, Harper's 180-page prolegomenon covers the provenance and hermeneutic issues of the manuscripts (section 1); the social and intellectual context (section 2); the medical contents, and their relation to the canonical tradition (section 3); the macrobiotic hygiene contents (section 4); and the magico-religious contents and their relations to early practices, including regionally distinct traditions (section 5). Harper's analysis is judicious and nuanced in both recapturing the categories of knowledge of these texts and their early Chinese contexts, and conveying these to late-twentieth- and twenty-first-century English-reading audiences. In the fourth to first centuries b.c.e. physicians began to distinguish themselves from other varieties of healer, such as shamans, as possessing knowledge increasingly grounded in cosmological theory and in texts. Harper places these texts in the contexts of early Chinese natural philosophy and occult knowledge. He finds in them a much wider range of approaches to physiology, pathology, and treatment than is seen in the Inner Canon. Where a relationship to Inner Canon Yin-Yang and vessel theory is apparent, that of the Mawangdui texts appears less developed and sometimes differs on key points, such as the number of vessels. In addition, this theory is most developed in the Mawangdui macrobiotic texts, and not in the medical texts themselves. For macrobiotic practices, Harper finds evidence that these were more widespread among the elite as common daily practices than has hitherto been guessed. The therapeutic repertoire of the Mawangdui texts includes medicinal drugs, exorcistic and magico-religious techniques, and surgical operations, but does not include acupuncture, the primary therapeutic technique of the Inner Canon.

This book is not written for the lay reader, and will be dense reading for most undergraduates. It assumes at least a general familiarity with early Chinese history. Harper also tends to favor accuracy over established practice in his translations. For most technical terms, such as qi ("vapor") and fang ("recipe"), he gives a reasoned account of his choice that also throws light on the early [End Page 122] historical context. Some unexplained choices, however, might confuse the novice. For example, rather than translating the term di...


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