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Novel Medicine: Healing, Literature, and Popular Knowledge in Early Modern China.

Novel Medicine: Healing, Literature, and Popular Knowledge in Early Modern China. By ANDREW SCHONEBAUM. Seattle: UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON PRESS, 2016. Pp. viii + 283. $50

Novels, with their detailed description of the private lives of their protagonists, take the reader inside the home and confront him or her with many aspects of human existence that are largely absent from public life. This applies not only to Western fiction, but also to vernacular Chinese fiction, as it was produced in ever larger quantities from the sixteenth century onward. From the nineteenth century Chinese novels have been translated into Western languages to allow their readers an opportunity to learn about the private life of their subjects. Now that traditional society has disappeared, novels provide a unique vantage point to view its inner workings, because they offer scenarios not only of how people should behave, but also describe how people actually did behave, especially in situations of stress. IIIness is of course one of the situations that test the norms and values of society, and is therefore a popular topic in traditional Chinese fiction, even if not as popular as love or war. At the same time that traditional vernacular Chinese fiction increasingly explored private emotions and actions, medical literature took a narrative turn as it increasingly came to rely on collections of case histories. Where earlier medical literature might have listed symptoms and their cures or provided theoretical discussion on the origins and treatments of disease, in Ming and Qing times collections of case histories provided ever more detailed accounts of individual cases and might go into great detail on the development of both the disease and the treatment, often providing interesting information on the actual interpenetration of scholarly and vernacular traditions of healing.

Andrew Schonebaum's Novel Healing provides a fascinating account from the treatment of illness and healing in vernacular fiction from the sixteenth century to the late Qing, and in so doing displays a remarkable knowledge of the medical literature and practice of the same period. Apart from a short introduction (pp. 3-13), this book is made up of six chapters. The first chapter, "Beginning to Read: Some Methods and Backgrounds" (pp. 14-46), provides an outline sketch of vernacular fiction from the sixteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, as well as a broad picture of the medical profession and its professional literature in the same period. The second chapter, "Reading Medically: Novel IIInesses, Novel Cures" (pp. 47-72), moves from cases in which the reading of fiction (or drama) affected young and impressionable minds with deadly results, to cases in which the reading of novels was prescribed as a medicine to stimulate depressed patients. The third chapter, "Vernacular Curiosities: Medical Entertainments and Memory" (pp. 73-121), is one of the longest chapters of the book and deals with plays and novels in which medicines are the main characters. To the best of my knowledge, this chapter is the first extensive English-language discussion of these curious materials. The chapter starts from a discussion of poems and songs in which the names of medicines are used for their literal meaning or pun on other expressions. This type of word play, which is here represented by an example from the Yuan dynasty love comedy Story of the Western Chamber (Xixiang ji [phrase omitted]), can be traced back centuries before. The chapter then proceeds to a discussion of the "pharmaceutical didactic operas" (p. 82) that circulated under titles such as An IIIustration of Numerous Drugs (Yaohui tu [phrase omitted]) and enjoyed their greatest popularity in northern China. In these plays (some of which are now easily available in a recent study) the characters bear the names of drugs, with toxic drugs tending to be cast in villainous roles. The plays have their own, at times hilarious, plots, but interspersed are tidbits of all kinds of medical information. The author next proceeds to a detailed discussion of the Annals of Grasses and Trees (Caomu chunqiu [phrase omitted], a Qing-dynasty novel in thirty-two chapters. In this work of herbal fantasy the peaceful reign of Emperor Liu Jinu [phrase omitted] ("wormwood") of the Han is disturbed by the savage attack of King Badou dahuang [phrase omitted] ("croton seeds and rhubarb") of the country of Hujiao [phrase omitted] ("black pepper"), who in the end, of course, is duly defeated. The main aim of this curious work may well have been to acquaint its readers with the names of herbs and other medicines and facilitate memorization. The chapter is concluded by a discussion of "novels as recipe books." The prime example in this section is the early nineteenth-century novel Flowers in the Mirror (Jinghua yuan [phrase omitted]).

The last three chapters of this monograph focus on various aspects of the relation between illness and sexuality. Chapter 4, "Diseases of Sex: Medical and Literary Views of Contagion and Retribution" (pp. 122-47), discusses the Chinese concept of "transmission and dying" (chuanran [phrase omitted]) and its renewed urgency in the wake of the spread of syphilis in China from the late sixteenth century onwards, and looks at the way in which the premodern Chinese conception of contagion is linked up with notions of retribution. In this chapter most examples are taken, as might be expected, from Plum in a Golden Vase (Jin Ping Mei [phrase omitted]) and A Marriage to Awaken the World (Xingshi yinyuan zhuan [phrase omitted] {$). Chapter 5, "Diseases of Qing: Medical and Literary Views of Depletion" (pp. 148-72), deals with the wide range of symptoms that in the traditional West would mostly be classified as "consumption." Whereas in the case of men depletion was simply credited to an excessive indulgence in sex, especially masturbation, in women the disease was increasingly associated with excessive but repressed longing, and in time the poster child for the phenomenon of the consumptive heroine became Lin Daiyu [phrase omitted] [phrase omitted], one of the major female characters in the eighteenth-century novel Red Chamber Dream (Honglou meng [phrase omitted]). Chapter 6, "Contagious Texts: Inherited Maladies and the Invention of Tuberculosis," breaks through the time frame of this study, as it deals with descriptions of tuberculosis and its treatment in the literature of the first half of the twentieth century. The major texts discussed in this chapter are Lin Shu's [phrase omitted] Chahuanu [phrase omitted] (a very free translation of Alexandre Dumas fils' La dame aux camellias, like the Honglou meng written before the discovery of the tuberculosis bacillus by Koch) and Ding Ling's [phrase omitted] Miss Sophie's Diary (Shafei nushi de riji [phrase omitted]). While Lin Shu wrote his renditions of foreign works in classical Chinese, Ding Ling is of course a member of the first generation of modern writers, and she interlarded her modern vernacular with modern medical vocabulary.

In the case of a broken leg there is probably little harm in using the terminology of contemporary medical science to describe the event, the treatment, and the experience of his or her condition by the patient. In the case of many chronic diseases in which mental and somatic symptoms converge and no single cause or treatment is obvious, the understanding of such conditions is very much culture-bound, and the experience of the disease by the patients and their surroundings may be quite different from the contemporary Western one. Schonebaum clearly shows the advantages of a careful analysis of episodes of sickness in traditional (and modern) fiction against a solid knowledge of the medical opinions of the day. In the process of his research he not only sheds light on well-known characters from popular works, but also draws attention to genres of literature and literary treatments of medical materials that have no clear counterpart in the Western tradition. As a result this book is a highly original contribution to the scholarship on traditional Chinese fiction. I very much hope that students of traditional Chinese medicine (and of the introduction of Western medicine into China) will find this work equally fascinating and enlightening.


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Author:Idema, Wiltl
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2018
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