The Chinese Body: Gender and Sex, Health and Medicine
General Catalog Course Title:
The Chinese Body: Gender and Sex, Health and Medicine
Terms Offered:
Spring 2013
Course Thread: 
Sciences and Society
Nylan, Michael

This course takes a thematic approach to analysis of the "Chinese body", as constructed in three successive time periods that spawned three quite different constructions of bodies, male and female: the early empires (4th c. BC-AD 4th c.), Song-late imperial China, and the modern period. As the course title indicates, the course is designed to help students gain a clearer picture of how the body was viewed from four main perspectives, those of (1) gender; (2) sexual activity; (3) health; and (4) medicine. Contrary to the stereotypes of "unchanging China," notions of the body have changed dramatically over the course of those two millennia, and contemporary qi gong 氣功 ("breath work") – like contemporary fengshui 風水 – has very little in common with ancient practices.

The conception of health in pre-modern China is predicated on the important distinction (generally ignored in modern American medicine) between "healing" and "curing." Students will be introduced to the general outline of Yin/yang, Five Phases theory, to standard definitions of "Nature," and to the major microcosm-macrocosm analogies. Diet, acupuncture, moxibustion, and meditation – rather than surgery – became the main treatments, because of holistic views of the body, as medical classics, novels and letters, and from recently excavated legal texts attest. Since sexuality (heterosexual and/or homosexual) is a precondition for good health in pre-modern China, the course discusses "ideal sexuality" (and deviations from this). It also considers the precise conditions under which "anti-female rhetoric" was invoked and that discourse's practical effects – legal, financial, and imaginative – on the lives of ordinary and elite women and their male counterparts, and finally the limitations of that rhetoric.
Selected readings will draw from such works as Shigehisa Kuriyama, The Expressiveness of the Body; Michel Strickmann, Chinese Magical Medicine; Ruth Rogawski, Hygienic Modernity; Douglas Wile, The Arts of the Bedchamber; Li Ju-chen, Flowers in the Mirror (China's counterpart to Gulliver's Travels); Nathan Sivin, "Body, State, and Cosmos in China in the Last Three centuries B.C."; and Angela Ki-che Leung, "Women Practicing Medicine in Pre-Modern China." The old syllabus from two years ago is being revised, but it is a useful guide nonetheless. NOTE: The course presumes NO knowledge of China, of the Chinese language, or of the history of science.

For more detailed information about classes, please visit the UC Berkeley Online Schedule of Classes.