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  • The Art of Medicine in Early China: The Ancient and Medieval Origins of a Modern Archive by Miranda Brown
  • Christopher Cullen
The Art of Medicine in Early China: The Ancient and Medieval Origins of a Modern Archive by Miranda Brown. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. xv + 237. $102.00 cloth, $82.00 e-book.

This is a book that centers on the historiography of Chinese medicine from early times up to the third century ce; it then follows the topic up to the present day. It approaches its subject through a close textual and contextual study of selected biographies of people whose activities are frequently discussed in relation to this topic. It will be of much interest to historians of medicine and historians of science generally, to Sinologists with an interest in the culture and intellectual life of late pre-imperial and early imperial China, and to those interested in the development of historiography in a world context. Those without knowledge of classical Chinese will find that the author has ensured that the content of this book is freely accessible to them; conversely, those who have such knowledge will be pleased that she precedes her clear and helpful translations with the original texts, and supplies Chinese characters for all names of persons and places as well as for book titles and technical terms.1

My last publication in the field of the history of Chinese medicine appeared over a decade ago,2 and I now work almost exclusively on astronomy and mathematics in early imperial China (roughly defined as the Qin 秦 and Han 漢 dynasties from the late third century bce to the early third century ce). I am therefore a reasonably well-informed reader of a book such as this one, rather than an active participant in current debates. I hope however to say something helpful to the wider potential readership of Miranda Brown’s writing.

This book is a study of the available accounts of six figures who have often served as building blocks for the construction of histories of [End Page 522] ancient Chinese medicine. Three of them have appeared in those histories primarily as objects of study for historians, ancient and modern: Yi He 醫和 appears in an episode from the Zuozhuan 左傳 that is set around 541 bce; stories are told of Bian Que 扁鵲 beginning from the early seventh century bce, and he may well be a euhemerized mythical figure; and Chunyu Yi 淳於意, who is also known as the Granary Master (Cang Gong 倉公), can be said with some assurance to have been active from circa 180–154 bce. Two of the remaining three figures are renowned as creators and transmitters of medical writing as well as healers: Zhang Ji 張機 (ca. 150–219 ce), and Huangfu Mi 皇甫謐 (215–282 ce). The remaining person, Liu Xiang 劉向 (77–6 bce), enters this particular story as an editor and classifier of medical writings, and hence to some extent as creator of a tradition of historiography.

Apart from Liu Xiang, all these names will be well known to anybody who has looked at the contents list of a general history of medicine in China: they are the founding fathers, whose careers, clinical practice, and writings provide the structure for the earlier parts of any such account. The main point of this book is to ask how this historiographic status quo came to be—and perhaps by so doing to suggest that it was not inevitable that things should have turned out this way. Miranda Brown’s answer to that problem is multilayered, and the layers get more interesting as she peels away more and more of them.

In the first place, some readers will be relieved to learn, the fact that we so frequently encounter these names is not the result of any kind of orientalist intellectual colonialism. Joseph Needham, for instance, included the first five names in his discussions of Chinese medicine,3 as have other Western scholars, but Needham was simply following the example set by the modern Chinese writers on the history of medicine whose work he very sensibly studied before embarking on his own project—an example imitated by those who followed in this study after...


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