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September 07, 2007


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This is lovely and a wonderful addition to your blog. Have you ever entertained the possibility of crossposting to Progressive Historians group blog? Your perspective and writing would be welcomed and well-received there.


If you've not seen it already, there's a wonderful comparison between Vesalius' Fabrica (1543) and Hua Shou's Shisijing fahui (1341) (figures 1 and 2 hereafter) in Shigehisa Kuriyama's The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine (1999), with both figures reproduced on facing pages. Here's a bit from his discussion: "Viewed side by side, the two figures each betray lacunae. In Hua Shou, we miss the muscular detail of the Vesalian man; and in fact Chinese doctors lacked even a specific word for 'muscle.' Muscularity was a peculiarly Western preoccupation. On the other hand, the tracts and points of acupuncture entirely escaped the West's anatomical vision of reality. Thus, when Europeans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries began to study Chinese medical teachings, the descriptions of the body they encountered struck them as 'phantastical' and 'absurd,' like tales of an imaginary land.

[....] [W]e are apt here to speak vaguely of different ways of thinking, or more slyly, of alternative perspectives: witnesses to an event often disagree, and not because of any dishonesty or clouded judgment, but just because of where they stand [think here of the Indian tale of the blind men and the elephant]." Kuriyama proceeds to note that in our case it's not a matter of (literal) spatial positioning: "So what exactly *could* we mean? What sorts of distances separate 'places' in the geography of medical imagination? How should we chart a map of viewpoints on the body?

[....] We cannot regard figures 1 and 2...or any other pair of pictures, as representing *the* Western and Chinese perspectives on the body. Neither tradition can be reduced to a single viewpoint.

Still, there is no denying the extraordinary influence--and cultural distinctiveness--of the perspectives that fixed on muscles in the one instance and acupuncture tracts in the other. It would be impossible to narrate a history of Western ideas about the structures and workings of the body without reference to muscles and muscular action; and any summary of Chinese medicine which failed to mention acupuncture tracts would be radically incomplete.

[....] The origins of these viewpoints long predate the two pictures. We encounter a well-developed theory of the muscular body already in the works of the Greek doctor Galen (130-200 C.E.); and by the end of the Latter Han dynasty (25-220 C.E.), which produced such canonical classics as the Huangdi neijing and Nanjing, the essential outlines of classical acupuncture would be securely in place.

[....] [Yet] if we delve deeper into the past, and examine earlier sources, such as the Hippocratic corpus and the Mawangdui manuscripts, the contrasts do not appear nearly as marked. We enter a world in which Greek doctors speak mostly of flesh and sinews rather than of muscles, and in which the Chinese art of needling has yet to be invented. This is perhaps the most compelling reason to scrutinize antiquity: such scrutiny allows us to reconsider figures 1 and 2 not as reflections of timeless attitudes, but as the results of historical change."


A good starting image for discussion - that is for sure. Working as a medical illustrator, I have developed a strong interest between the relationships between artists and medical fields, and have been writing about topics related to this in my blog (address above). I've also been participating in some Medical Humanities events here in Halifax, Nova Scotia - at Dalhousie University.

Rather recently I was interviewed by a journalism student - who asked me a great question; "Why should artists of today be looking at and thinking about medical images?" My answer was that since we (= western medicine) have been looking at the human body in a systematic way for ONLY several hundred years, there is still a lot of thinking to do. Our relationships with images of the human body remains a central point in our culture, and we are only beginning to develope reasonably accurate impressions of the complexity and relationships that are present within human biology.

Enjoyed the piece, and look forward to seeing more posts to the medical images category.

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