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Translating Buddhist Medicine in Medieval China by C. Pierce Salguero (review)
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Reviewed by
C. Pierce Salguero. Translating Buddhist Medicine in Medieval China. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. 245 pp. $55.00 (978-0-8122-4611-7).

Translating Buddhist Medicine in Medieval China concerns the movement of Indian medicine and healing techniques to China. Seminal works have been written about the transmission of Buddhism from the Indian subcontinent to China. Scholars have long acknowledged that in addition to having to surmount high mountain [End Page 799] passes and cross desolate deserts, the movement of Buddhism—including its texts, doctrines, monastic institutions, and material culture—to China also involved overcoming an immense range of fundamentally different cultural traits and linguistic challenges. Many of the interpretive issues that scholars of Buddhism have faced also pertain to the study of the transmission of Indian medicine to China.

In Translating Buddhist Medicine in Medieval China, the author focuses his purview on the translation and transmission of medical knowledge from India to China. In the space of 148 pages, the author analyzes a vast array of Buddhist scriptures, apocryphal works, and popular narratives that include medical knowledge and demonstrates the ways that Indian medical ideas were translated and adapted to fit the Chinese cultural environment. Salguero draws on the accrued body of excellent research that has been published in English, French, and Chinese as he lays out his own account of that history, but I suspect that the Japanese secondary literature could have been used more effectively.

The introduction discusses important issues in translation studies, particularly those raised by Eugene Nida, in order to build a framework for understanding how the author grapples with issues of the equivalence (or not) between Indic terms and concepts and their translation into Chinese. The author aims to move beyond basic questions about how accurate the Chinese were in their understanding and translation of Buddhist medicine from India to ask more nuanced questions. Some scholars will no doubt quibble with the author’s sanguine view that we can access a translator’s “intentions, concerns, and thought processes” (p. 11). That position seems tricky to justify due to the author’s own acknowledgment that we know little about the translator(s) and we can’t even be sure that the text in question is a translation from an Indic original since in most cases we lack the source texts. The general reader will likely appreciate the last section of the introduction, which discusses important methodological issues concerning the relationship of religion and medicine and key terminological issues concerning the definition of physician, medicine, and healing.

Chapter 1, whose keyword is “transmission,” begins with a discussion of the pre-Buddhist religious and medical history of China to establish a foundation for assessing the impact of the arrival of Indian medical concepts. The bulk of the chapter discusses how Buddhist medical knowledge made its way to China. Chapter 2, whose keyword is “translation,” discusses the social and institutional context of the Chinese Buddhist translators who set to work on the newly imported materials. The author argues that this context is essential for understanding the choices translators made in rendering the new Indian material into Chinese.

Chapter 3 narrows its purview to five seminal medical metaphors extracted from a large corpus of Buddhist texts and how they were translated either for the monastic community or for a lay audience. Works directed at the Buddhist community tended to render terms and concepts in a “foreignizing” idiom and those directed to the laity rendered them with terms more closely related to indigenous Chinese terminology.

Chapters 4 and 5 move from translations of Buddhist canonical scriptures to consider the presentation of Buddhist medicine in commentaries, popular narratives, [End Page 800] and other more diffused texts. Those sources allow the author to chart some important historical changes and assess the diffusion of Buddhist medicine outside of monastic communities.

The book ends with a concluding chapter that offers some thoughts on why Buddhist medicine, which had formerly been so influential, failed to maintain its position of authority in Chinese medicine during the ninth to twelfth centuries.

One of the main contributions of Translating Buddhist Medicine in Medieval China is what it has to say about thinking critically...