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China and Inner Asia
Normalizing Renyao in the Late Ming: Forty-three Images of Human-Derived Medicines and Their Challenge to Prevailing Medical Ethics
Individual Paper Presenter(s)
Syracuse University, United States
Renyao (human-derived drugs) played an important role in Chinese medicine since at least the Tang Dynasty. Derived from human sources, these drugs were used to treat a surprisingly large number of physical and mental diseases. Despite the essential role played by these drugs, and despite the ubiquity of illustrations in medical texts, there were no illustrations of renyao until the late Ming, when forty-three images of human-derived drugs first appeared in four medical works. This was a monumental change. Ming taboos on the depiction of renyao had been universally observed, and were rationalized by the statement of Ming imperial doctors that there should be no illustrations of human-derived drugs because “human body parts are possessed by everyone.” In this paper, I will examine these images and their implications in the late Ming and after. Focusing on the interplay of medical, political, social, and cultural factors, I will observe how the sudden appearance of these images heralded changes in both Chinese medicine and Chinese medical ethics, as taboos were broken and as doctors were given explicit visual cues as to the nature and preparation of human-derived drugs. As my paper will show, at least some of the impetus for these changes had to do with the rising popularity of Daoist medical principles. Focusing on these images, I will explore some of what they can reveal about the normalizing of renyao in the late Ming.