- The Art of Medicine in Early China: The Ancient and Medieval Origins of a Modern Archive by Miranda Brown
Miranda Brown’s new monograph spotlights a fundamental, yet surprisingly neglected question: Why did the development of medicine in China come to be narrated in the way that it is? Her work is a pioneering foray into the historiography, the first book-length study devoted to exploring how Chinese medical history has been told.
The book originated, she says, as an effort to correct what she suspected to be a modern bias—a bias she spotted most notably in the works of Lu Gwei-djen and Joseph Needham. Their influential Celestial Lancets (1980) and later writings advanced a tale of progress centered around the achievements of what they termed the “fathers of medicine.” Brown was skeptical: inspired by incisive historiographical critiques in other fields, such as Craig Clunas’ Art in China (1997) and Lionel Jensen’s Manufacturing Confucianism (1997), she initially set out to expose Lu and Needham’s tale as a modern distortion, a recasting of the Chinese past filtered through European ideologies.1 But as she traced the genealogy of the tale, she made an unexpected discovery: the narrative of medical fathers was, in fact, neither modern nor European. Its roots could be found already in ancient and medieval Chinese histories. This, as her introduction explains, is the meaning of her title: The Art of Medicine is not about particular healing practices or conceptions of sickness, but rather about the very idea of a medical art, and the crystallization, in ancient and medieval China, of a narrative about its development—the origin of tales whose influence lingers to this day.
After the introduction, Brown’s study unfolds in six chapters and an epilogue, which follow the chronological succession of their subjects. Chapter 4 serves as the book’s pivot, and highlights the role of the first-century BCE scholar Liu Xiang, whose bibliography, Brown convincingly argues, was instrumental in forging the identity of medicine as a unified art with a history. The preceding three chapters discuss stories about three legendary healers who antedated Liu Xiang—Attendant He (chap. 1), Bian Que (chap. 2), Chunyu Yi (chap. 3)—while chapters 5 and 6 take up the shifting historical portrayals of Zhang Ji and Huangfu Mi, who were active in the second and third centuries CE. The concluding epilogue then jumps to the twentieth century, to sketch ties between modern accounts of Chinese medical history and the very early narratives that are the book’s prime focus. [End Page 543]
Like most historiographical works, The Art of Medicine emphasizes contingency. The history of Chinese medicine, Brown urges, could have been and often was narrated in markedly different ways. Famous doctors were not always famous, and their claims to renown changed over time, reflecting the changing priorities of historians and the disparate contexts in which they wrote. Later accounts blithely foregrounded or even invented new feats and skills to anchor the reputation of a doctor or a scholar, while excising or slighting accomplishments that previous biographers had stressed. Early historians, Brown suggests, were above all bricoleurs, not so much fabricating stories from scratch as reworking existing details into portraits that suited their particular aims. As intimated by her use of terms like “bias” and “distortion,” Brown does occasionally veer close to faulting past historians for failing to tell the true story—as if it were possible to arrive at one actual and unfiltered biographical truth—but her actual analyses of contexts are by and large more nuanced and persuasive.
Chronologically, her main narrative stops in the third century, well before the great majority of those doctors—Sun Simiao, Zhu Danxi, Li Dongyuan, and Wu Youxing, among countless others—whose contributions to practice or theory came, for diverse reasons, to be celebrated as critical to the development of Chinese medicine. The Art of Medicine thus represents only a start toward illuminating the arc of...