International workshop

"Comparative perspectives on body materiality and structure

in the history of Sinitic and East Asian medicines"

2-4 October 2015
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI



The Wellcome Trust/Beyond Tradition Project at EASTmedicine, University of Westminster, London (UK);  The American Council of Learned Societies/Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation "Comparative Perspectives on Chinese Culture and Society" program; and the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI (USA).

Organizing committee

Leslie de Vries (Univ. of Westminster, EASTmedicine); Miranda Brown (Univ. of Michigan, ALC); Yi-Li Wu (Univ. of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies; Univ. of Westminster, EASTmedicine)


For more information, contact:  yiliwu@umich.edu

Workshop description 

How have practitioners of Sinitic and other East Asian medicines historically understood the material structures of the human body?  How did different actors create, assess, and disseminate knowledge about bodily structure, and how were perceptions of bodily structure intertwined with ideas about health, illness, and therapeutics?  Our workshop will address these questions in order to investigate an important—yet widely neglected--epistemological dynamic in the development of healing and medical practice in East Asia.


Historically, Sinitic and East Asian medical texts contained numerous discussions of the body’s structures, including organs and channels, skin and flesh, bones and sinews.  Their authors debated the morphology of the body, sought to map its physical layout, and aimed to articulate standards of correct and effective knowledge. Modern scholars and practitioners have tended to dismiss such portrayals as anatomically irrelevant, or to portray them as metaphorical representations with little connection to the actual material reality defined by biomedicine.  Our workshop will challenge this interpretative bias by examining these bodily representations on their own terms, taking them seriously as a form of knowledge that informed what healers believed and how they practiced. In doing so, we seek to arrive at a better understanding of these medical traditions while simultaneously shifting the analytical parameters that still tend to bias cross-cultural comparisons of bodily knowledge. 


The invited workshop papers will thus incorporate one or more of the following methodological approaches:


 (1) Documenting and analyzing historical representations of body structure and materiality in Sinitic and East Asian medicines, as expressed in writings, images, artifacts, or practices


(2) Investigating the strategies and frameworks that practitioners of Sinitic and East Asian medicines use to acquire and assess knowledge about the body’s material structures


(3) Articulating analytical frameworks for understanding the relationship between bodily structure and function in Sinitic and East Asian healing systems and for conducting cross-cultural comparisons between different types of body knowledge.

Paper presenters and commentators

Workshop schedule

Image credit: Three Tibetan medical figures, 1904; assumed to be a copy of The Blue Beryl, Wellcome Library, London