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"Ten Times More Difficult to Treat": Female Bodies in Medical Texts from Early Imperial China

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This paper examines the interpretation of female bodies by male medical authors in post-Han China, investigating medical theories and practices as reflected in the applied medical literature of "prescriptions for women." Between the Han and Song periods, this paper argues, the negative association of the female body with the vague category of pathologies "below the girdle," referring most notably to conditions of vaginal discharge, was replaced with a more positive focus on menstruation, which symbolized regular and predictable cycles of generativity and free flow. As male physicians came to recognize the female body as gendered and accepted the need for a specialized treatment of women, menstruation became the window through which they gained access to the hidden processes inside the female body. By "balancing/regulating the menses," they learned to treat and prevent such dreaded chronic conditions as infertility, susceptibility to cold, or general emaciation and weakness, all which were seen as related to the female reproductive processes. Thus, the practice of menstrual regulation ultimately served to ensure female fertility and the continuation of the family line.


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