Buddhist Medicine in Medieval China


A review of Buddhist Medicine in Medieval China: Disease, Healing, and the Body in Cross-cultural Translation (Second to Eighth Centuries C.E.), by C. Pierce Salguero.

Pierce Salguero’s dissertation marks a significant departure from the norms of Chinese medical history, which has focused almost entirely on a received tradition that traces its origins back to the Huangdi neijing 黃帝內經. By introducing a discrete body of medical writings from the Buddhist Canon (Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō 大正新脩大藏經) and the Dunhuang 敦煌 manuscripts, Salguero brings to bear on these materials new notions of medicine, complex ideas of the body in religion, and a fresh vision of the competitive field in which these doctrines were received, adapted and disseminated. Salguero brings the study of these materials up to the present by introducing methodologies such as translation theory and conceptual metaphor theory, and by contextualizing the Chinese materials within the broader study of global transmission of medicine.

Although it has long been acknowledged that “the lion’s share” of therapeutic activity in medieval China was performed outside the Neijing tradition, little research has been done in this area. Salguero broaches this field by providing future researchers with a useful set of categories and analytical tools, setting up approaches not just for his own later work but for future generations of scholars in this area. In Chapter 1 he identifies the setting within which these doctrines had their greatest purchase as the “religio-medical marketplace” (pp. 108-113). By emphasizing the importance of therapeutics in Chinese religions, this term foregrounds the problems inherent in modern studies which separate them into different activities. Although the combination of these interests was common to many medieval religions, it has been left largely unexamined by studies focused on ritual, syncretism and textual genealogies.

Salguero argues cogently for the importance of translation theory to understand the reception and reconceptualization of different medical texts in their specific contexts. Chapter 2 challenges Paul Demiéville’s and Paul Unschuld’s arguments that poor translations of Indian medical terms into Chinese medical ones set up false equations, and that the ensuing confusion prevented the broad adoption of Indian medical ideas. Salguero maintains that, on the contrary, Buddhist translation terms were intelligently conceived as broadly multivalent, encompassing a range of meanings. These ranges of meaning brought out the comparability between the two systems in new ways that spoke directly to specific target audiences, and demonstrated the comprehensiveness of Buddhism as an entire system of thought.

Chapters 3 and 4 take up other examples of translation strategies in their social context. Using conceptual metaphor theory, Salguero demonstrates how specific metaphors of the body and illness reflect different target audiences. Texts which describe the body as a filthy, decaying, collection of parts and which emphasize austerity and endurance in the face of disease were consistently directed towards monastic communities who advocated practices of asceticism and self-control. The physiological and anatomical treatises found in these texts were often less clinical in conception than philosophical, aimed at constructing an ideology to support a culture of austerity. These texts adopted foreignizing translation strategies such as transliteration of esoteric terms, which served to mark the foreignness and exotic nature of the ideas in the text. In contrast, texts which described healing as a reward for devotion, emphasizing donation, magical rituals such as visualization, invocation, spells, talismans and scriptural recitation were often oriented towards the laity. These practices were important ways in which the Buddhist sangha argued for its relevance to the Chinese populace. Thus, although esoteric ritual terms might have been used, the ritual logic was usually always explained in local, Sinitic terms, which made the basic sense of the rituals familiar and logical to native Chinese readers.

Chapters 5 and 6 discuss the performative elements of representations of the body and healing in different genres of writing. Chapter 5 focuses on the Lives of Eminent Monks (Gaoseng zhuan 高僧傳), and demonstrates the centrality of therapy in narratives of famous, worthy and miraculous Buddhists. Not only was therapy one of, if not the most important means for proselytizing and attracting patronage, its prominence shows how Buddhists responded to the chaotic political, martial and epidemiological conditions of early medieval China. Chapter 6 surveys a broader range of materials including commentaries, meditation manuals, encyclopedias and travelogues, and synthesizes them into an analysis of changing trends in translation strategy in the Sui-Tang period. Salguero argues that “rewriters” in the sixth and seventh centuries used localizing terminology to make Indian ideas seem more familiar, but that by the mid-seventh century, fidelity to Indian texts became increasingly the norm. Salguero posits that while this transition reflects a deepening engagement with Buddhist medicine, it may have eventually contributed to the decreasing impact of Buddhist medicine from the end of the Tang onwards.

This dissertation thus constitutes an argument for the centrality of therapeutic work and medical thought in medieval Chinese Buddhism. It demonstrates how attention to word choices and strategies of translation, rewriting and reconceptualization reveals the underlying intellectual activity involved in making bridges between different cultures, epistemes and social sectors. As such, it is also a methodological proposal for the broader study of the transmission of medicine. Pierce Salguero’s dissertation is already contracted for publication next year in the “Encounters with Asia” series of University of Pennsylvania Press. His further publication plans include a detailed survey of Buddhist medical scriptures throughout the Tripitika as well as a reader of translations from major Buddhist medical scriptures.

Michael Stanley-Baker
Associate, China Centre for Health and Humanity, University College London
Treasurer, International Association for the Study of Traditional Asian Medicine

Primary Sources

Chinese and Indian Medical Literature
Daoist Canon
Dunhuang Manuscripts
Imperial Histories
Pāli and Taishō Canons

Dissertation Information

Johns Hopkins University. 2010. 395 pp. Primary Advisor: Marta Hanson.


Image: Photograph by Pierce Salguero.