Translating Ancient Chinese Wisdom into Medicine for Today

Q&A Forum

Q&A Forum for Imperial Mentorship members

Please send me your questions through this form, and let me know whether you are okay with me sharing the answer (and perhaps your name) on this forum for the Imperial Mentees…

Conceptual changes in gender as it relates to female medical practitioners

Question (Oct. 30, 2018): “Hi, I am an acupuncture student and for my history and philosophy of Chinese Medicine class we had to do a research paper on some historical/philosophical aspect of Chinese Medicine. I chose to research the historical conceptual changes in gender as it relates to female medical practitioners or healers. I read your blog article about the alpha and beta males, and it offered some good insights. I still personally find that there is such a disconnect between what the philosophy stated in early history and how misogyny continued to develop, but I still have so much more to learn. I am trying to understand the shift from matriarchal societies in the Neolithic era, to the overall lowly perception of females during the further consolidation of Neo-Confucianism in the Song dynasty. I spoke to a friend who studied philosophy, but who doesn't know about Neo-Confucianism or Chinese history, and he suggested the potential role of colonialism. I haven't found anything specific, but I do see and understand how patriarchal attitudes and colonialism usually go together. I was wondering if you have any thoughts regarding this topic that could help give some direction? Perhaps, cultural influences from Western Asia could have also enhanced this shift towards an aggressive patriarchy? 
Any help is appreciated!”

Sabine’s response: “This is a great question and very complex! (: It's hard to answer in brief! It's definitely not the case, due to historical facts, that Western colonialist influence turned China patriarchal and misogynistic. We know that the influence of Western (especially colonial) culture and values became dominant enough to fundamentally alter Chinese society not until the 1800s. And as you mention, the patrilineal, patriarchal, hierarchical structure of society in China far predates that development. It's so difficult, though, to actually even know how misogynistic the society was as a lived experienced. Footbinding is clearly a sign of horrific suffering and limiting women's freedom. This practice became popular in the Song period, partly as a reaction to the pressure of  so-called "barbarian" nomadic tribal peoples to the north and west of China (Mongols, proto-Manchurian, Jurchen, Khitan etc who were militarily superior to the settled agricultural high-culture Chinese and had strong female roles). My sense is that especially elite scholarly Chinese men who felt threatened by these more martial "barbarians" on horseback had to protect their maleness partly by protecting their women and emphasizing their “culture” in the old contrast of wen 文 “culture” versus 武 “military might”? But it's really too complicated to give you a quick answer. Ah.....You could read up on Mongols or on Song dynasty China and society. For female healers, Charlotte Furth’s book “A Flourishing Yin: Gender in China's Medical History: 960–1665” is a great introduction to gender in Chinese medicine. Also Yi-Li Wu, “Reproducing Women: Medicine, Metaphor, and Childbirth in Late Imperial China” perhaps will shed some light on women in medicine, but does not directly address your question about female healers. Jen-der Lee’s “Women Healers in Late Antiquity and Early Medieval CHina,” (link to abstract here), which is published as a chapter in the journal Nan Nü and is also interesting but covers a much earlier period than what you seem to be interested in. There is a lot of flaky information out there about how misogynistic traditional Chinese society was but when you dig deeper that is simply not true, especially before the Song dynasty. A book on the Mongols (Yuan dynasty) that I have is George Lane, "Daily Life in the Mongol Empire." Also for Chinese society a little later in the late imperial period, Susan Mann, "The Talented Women of the Zhang Family" is a book I thoroughly enjoyed because it deconstructs our prejudices about patriarchal China. I hope this helps! And this is obviously a highly complex question that cannot be answered in a blog. Please comment away if you feel like it.

Sabine WilmsComment