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Visual Representations of the Body in Chinese Medical and Daoist Texts from the Song to the Qing Period (Tenth to Nineteenth Century)

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image of Asian Medicine

This article is a preliminary survey of representations of the body produced in China from the Song to the Qing period in the context of medicine, forensic medicine and Daoism. Despite much common theoretical background, bodily representation in each of these fields differs in function and intent. Each field came to be associated with a particular aspect of the body. For medicine, this was the description of the viscera and the channels and tracts through which qi and humours flowed; for forensic medicine, it was the description of the skeleton; for Daoism, it was the symbolic description of the body as the spatio-temporal locus of a system of mutations and correspondences with the outside world and the spirit world.

These representations fall into three categories, reflecting three different approaches to the body: images of the whole body approached from without, including gymnastic postures, locations on the body, somatic measurements, channels and tracts; images of the inside of the body, i.e. the internal organs and the skeleton (which raises issues regarding dissection); and images of the symbolic body, i.e. alchemical processes within the body and the true form of the allegorical body. The images, which are always accompanied by text, require to be read according to specific cultural codes, and reveal particular mental constructions of the body. They perform multiple functions, serving as proof of knowledge, teaching material, medium of transmission, memory aid, or graphic presentation of a text; and for the Daoists, manifesting the form of the true body.


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