Daoism & Medicine in Early Medieval China


A review of Daoists and Doctors: The Role of Medicine in Six Dynasties Shangqing Daoism, by Michael Stanley-Baker.

Michael Stanley-Baker’s dissertation offers a fresh and innovative look on the relationship between religion and healthcare through an analysis of the role of therapeutics in the formation of Daoist beliefs and practices in early medieval China. It does so by focusing on a specific case study, the Declarations of the Perfected (Zhen’gao 真誥, HY1010), examining this work against the backdrop of the early medieval “religio-medical market,” which Stanley-Baker defines as a field of “discursive and economic competition” comprised of diverse actors attempting to assert the supremacy of their own technologies of cure and salvation over that of their rivals (p. 16). The dissertation surveys three main forms of therapeutic practices depicted in the Zhen’gao – acupuncture, massage, and drugs – and demonstrates how the three were strategically deployed in order to promote the salvific goals of Shangqing Daoism. Adopting the methodology of historical anthropology, Stanley-Baker aims to go beyond traditional labels such as the religion-science dichotomy, or the classification of Daoist religion into distinct sects, and instead to investigate the various strategies employed by individual actors to “negotiate their ideological, institutional, social and physiological concerns” (p. 17) and the different social networks in which they operated.

[Ed. Note: See also Michael Stanley-Baker’s review of “Buddhist Medicine in Medieval China,” by C. Pierce Salguero.]

Daoists and Doctors is divided into an introductory chapter, six main chapters, a conclusion, and seven appendices that include translations from key primary sources as well as some highly valuable charts and tables of comparison. In the introduction, Stanley-Baker first situates his study in the context of two main disciplines – the history of science and religious studies – and then highlights the limitations of using their traditional categories and methodologies in studying the religio-medical market of early medieval China. Drawing on the work of Bruno Latour and Stanley J. Tambiah, he demonstrates that the alleged dichotomy between religion and medicine, or magical and rational thought, is a product of Post-Reformation European and thus not necessarily applicable in the case of China (p. 31). In addition, Stanley-Baker also aligns himself with the previous efforts of sinologists Robert Campany and Nathan Sivin in arguing for the inadequacy of employing modern definitions of religion, which emphasize sectarian distinctions, in the study of Daoism. In Six Dynasties China, he argues, there was no centralized religious authority nor a distinguishable and widely-accepted institutional structure through which religio-medical knowledge was managed (p. 34). The crystallization of these ideas and practices took place in what can be described as an “on-going conversation” between individuals in the context of different social institutions, from large-scale imagined communities such as the state of religious organizations to the small-scale communities of the village and the familial unit (p. 43).

After introducing some broad theoretical issues relating to religion and medicine, in chapter 2 Stanley-Baker turns to a more specific analysis of the relationship between text and praxis by examining the role of therapeutic practices in three textual genres: scripture (jing 經), instruction (jue 訣), and hagiography (zhuan 傳). The crux of his argument is demonstrating that the social instructions used to control the dissemination of religious esoteric knowledge, i.e. rituals of transmission, were also employed in the medical sphere. Therapeutic practices, argues Stanley-Baker, were not mere practical instructions but actually enjoyed a canonical status since they allowed the practitioners to embody the numinous power of the divine scriptures and identify themselves as members of an exclusive social group defined by their allegiance to a canon (pp. 66-67).

The progression from broad questions to particular case studies continues in the next four chapters. Chapters 3 and 4 focus on specific manual therapeutic techniques – acupuncture, moxibustion, and massage – and their relationship with ideas of salvation and the afterlife in the Zhen’gao. Stanley-Baker argues that while these manual practices are palpably distinguished from what scholars often associate with the Shangqing repertoire – visualization meditation, ritual, and the ingestion of qi, drugs, or talismans – they were still an integral part of the Shangqing salvational programme and thus provide us with important information about the relationship between religious practice and classical Chinese medicine (pp. 76-77). The main argument in this section is that one of the key strategies used in the Zhen’gao involves juxtaposing therapeutic modes from different religious and medical repertoires against each other in order to create a hierarchy of value and to assert the supremacy of the Shangqing programme (pp. 81, 116). Drawing on this observation, chapter 3 demonstrates that, despite the prevalence of acupuncture and moxibustion in the Six Dynasties period, classical medicine was not the central locus of authority against which he shaped his own therapeutic regimen, which suggests it did not occupy a dominant role in the religio-medical market of that time (p. 108). Chapter 4 similarly explores a relatively marginal component of the Shangqing repertoire – massage therapy – by analyzing its relationship with visualization meditation. Stanley-Baker demonstrates that the practice of actualization (cun 存), arguably the most prominent and well-studied aspect of Shangqing practice, was not merely a visual experience but also entailed more tactile, kinaesthetic qualities, namely an observation of the internal effects of  massage (pp. 120, 131).

In chapters 5 and 6, Stanley-Baker shifts his attention from manual techniques to drug therapy. Chapter 5 situates the repertoire offered in the Zhen’gao in the context of its contemporary drug lore and pharmacopoeia literature, particularly Tao Hongjing’s (陶弘景, 456-536 CE) Bencao Jing Jizhu (BCJJZ, 本草經集注). Comparing the different textual records allows Stanley-Baker to map out the flow of drugs and drug lore in early medieval China and outline two distinct networks of distribution: a trans-regional model based on a large-scale transmission of goods and knowledge and a local model based on esoteric oral transmission within close-knit sectarian communities (p. 175). In chapter 6, Stanley-Baker differentiates between two different applications of drug therapy accompanied by two modes of dissemination: progression recipes that were given to Shangqing initiates as one component of a larger cultivational regimen intended to advance practitioners on their way to transcendence and prescription recipes that were circulated on a broader level in order to provide a clinical response to specific disease conditions (p. 187). He concludes by showing how sources like the Zhen’gao can be used to reconstruct regional “networks of exchange and transmission that lay at the peripheries of imperial power” thereby expanding our understanding of therapeutics on the local level.

In chapter 7 Stanley-Baker returns to the topic of chapter 2 – textual representations of therapeutic practices – and demonstrates that from the late 4th century onwards, the emergence of new models of canonicity marginalized the role of therapeutics in salvational regimens. The classification and standardization of the Daoist Canon by figures such as Lu Xiujing (陸修靜 406-477 CE), which set some texts and practices as orthodox and others as heterodox, led to an increased sense of sectarian self-definition. In order to distinguish themselves from other sects, proponents of the canons chose to deemphasize therapeutics as the foundation of cultivation in favor of an exclusively soteriological focus, influenced by Mahayanistic Buddhist ideals (p. 236). This gradual separation of religion and medicine, concludes Stanley-Baker, explains the differences between Han and Sui dynasty imperial catalogs and the “disappearance of therapy from the bibliographic radar” (p. 237). The point is readdressed in the conclusion, where Stanley-Baker argues that, despite this gradual shift, the “admixture of salvation and health reflects the deeply therapeutic orientation of indigenous Chinese religions” (p. 243). Weaving together the various threads outlined throughout his dissertation, Stanley-Baker is able to demonstrate that the therapeutic repertoires of the various Daoist sects were not shaped by any joint overarching pan-Daoist ideology or identity but rather by local rivalries in the religio-medical market. This observation, he concludes, is instrumental in obtaining a more nuanced understanding of the social, physical, and spiritual concerns addressed by Chinese religions (pp. 246-247).

Daoists and Doctors is an excellent example of how to use an interdisciplinary comparative approach effectively in the study of a specific case study – Shangqing Daoism. Stanley-Baker’s apt use of the “religio-medical marketplace” category enables him to paint a vivid picture of the vigorous intellectual discourse that took place in south China in a seminal moment in the formation of organized religion, and to reveal the crucial role played by local knowledge and therapeutic practices in the formation of Daoism. Moreover, Stanley-Baker’s sinological rigor, which is particularly palpable in his indices and his translations of highly esoteric technical texts, as well as his fluency in broad contemporary methodological and theoretical issues, makes this dissertation a stimulating read not only for historians of China but also to those interested in understanding the broader categories of religion and science.

Ori Tavor
Department of Religion
George Washington University

Primary Sources

Daoist Canon
Medical Canon
Imperial Histories
Yunji qiqian 雲笈七籤

Dissertation Information

University College London. 2013. 323 pp. Primary Advisor: Vivienne Lo.

Image: Yunji qiqian [Digital Taiwan Photo Database]