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Reviewed by:
  • Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts
  • Lisa Raphals (bio)
Donald Harper . Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts. London: Kegan Paul International; New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. 549 pp. Hardcover $127.50, ISBN 0-7103-0582-6.

Archaeological finds over the past three decades have cast new light on many aspects of Warring States intellectual history, and medicine has been no exception. The Mawangdui medical corpus consists of seven medical manuscripts written on three sheets of silk, recovered from Mawangdui Tomb 3 in 1973, a burial dating from 168 B.C.E. They were originally published in volume 4 of Mawangdui hanmu boshu(The Han dynasty silk manuscripts of Mawangdui) (Beijing: Wenwu Chubanshe, 1983). Donald Harper's translation and commentary marks a breakthrough, not only for the understanding of early Chinese medicine but for all aspects of Chinese intellectual history and philosophy.

The first part of the volume is a lengthy introduction to the history and significance of the Mawangdui medical manuscripts. The first section is a survey of their contents and provenance, including the questions of their relation to other medical literature excavated from tombs and their relation to such Han texts as the Huang Di neijing and the biography of Chunyu Yi in Shi ji 105. The second section turns to the complex intellectual context of the Mawangdui materials. Harper locates them within a range of technical and philosophical literature, and discusses their significance for broader issues of Warring States intellectual history. He explores the at times complex relationships (as in Greece) between the activities of philosophers, physicians (yi), shamans (wu), and a spectrum of magico-religious skills and practices, including the mastery of "recipes and techniques" (fangji) and "calculations and arts" (shushu), as well as the vexing question of their relation to the development of yin-yang theory in the Han. This section also includes a very interesting comparison of two sets of philosophical arguments: Chinese controversies surrounding the status of medical arts and techniques and Greek arguments surrounding the status of techne or "skill" and its relation to philosophical activity and human well-being (and the relation of both to the occult arts).

Next comes a description of the medical ideas and practices treated in the corpus, broken down into the categories of illness, physiology, therapy, and materia medica. A third section discusses macrobiotic hygiene and techniques that were, as Harper convincingly argues, significant elements in Warring States philosophical and religious discourses on self-cultivation. He focuses on the "Neiye" chapter of the Guanzi as the best exemplar of "physiological theories which fused the physical and spiritual component of the human organism, and which made vapor the source of each" (p. 119). It includes a trenchant discussion of the [End Page 463] importance of macrobiotic hygiene for an understanding of Warring States philosophy.

The introduction's final section, "Magic," takes up the influence of magical traditions associated with the southern kingdoms of Chu and Yue . Harper draws on the work of the twentieth-century scholar Chai E to argue for the early existence of a southern tradition of breath magic in which illness could be displaced by means of "incantations for removal" (zhuyou). Harper argues that such breath-magic techniques as the "Recipes of Yue" (Yue fang) disappeared in medieval times because "the popular use of charms, spells and talismans was subsumed in religious Daoism" (p. 178).

In the second part of the book, Harper provides an annotated translation of the Mawangdui medical manuscripts. The individual manuscripts are untitled, but have been assigned titles by Chinese scholars on the basis of their contents. The first manuscript (MS 1) consists of five sections: Zubi shiyi mai jiujing or "Cauterization Canon of the Eleven Vessels of the Foot and Forearm" (1.1), Yin Yang shiyi mai jiujing or "Cauterization Canon of the Eleven Yin and Yang Vessels" (1.2), Maifa or "Model of the Vessels" (1.3), Yin Yang mai sihou or "Death Signs of the Yin and Yang Vessels" (1.4), and Wushier bingfang or "Recipes for Fifty-two Ailments" (1.5). The second manuscript has two parts: Quegu shi qi, "Eliminating Grain and Eating Vapor" (2.1), and Daoyin tu...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9367
Print ISSN
1069-5834
Pages
pp. 463-466
Launched on MUSE
2000-09-01
Open Access
No
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