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Looking for Gender in the Medical Paintings of Desi Sangye Gyatso, Regent of the Tibetan Buddhist State

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image of Asian Medicine

This essay studies the representation of women and gender in the unprecedented, elaborately detailed medical paintings created by Desi Sangye Gyatso at the end of the seventeenth century in Lhasa, Tibet. It compares the textual version of the information rendered in the paintings with their visual translation. The study discovers a rather complex and mixed picture. It finds that the more systematic portrayals of human anatomy betray a deep androcentrism, with images of female bodies either marginalised or entirely absent. However, other less standard parts of the set that depict a wide swathe of daily life on the Tibetan plateau show much more diversity in gender conception. A far greater number of females are depicted there. Women are still shown almost exclusively in gender-specific roles and are virtually never deployed to stand for a gender-neutral medical condition, which is always represented either by a default male figure or a gender-ambiguous one. And yet some of these less standard depictions show either gender egalitarianism, or indeed show little gender differentiation at all, even with respect to attire and bodily features such as breasts and hair. Some images even suggest that gender differentiation was not an important issue, at least some of the time. Yet still other portions of the less standard vignettes do display strict gender distinction and also indicate the greater importance of male medical issues and the inferior status of the female body. In sum, the medical paintings suggest that a wide range of gender conceptions operated not only in Tibetan medicine but also across society more broadly, and these were neither consistent nor fixed.


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