Speaking of Epidemics in Chinese Medicine: Disease and the Geographic Imagination in Late Imperial China (Hardback) book cover

Speaking of Epidemics in Chinese Medicine

Disease and the Geographic Imagination in Late Imperial China

By Marta Hanson

© 2011 – Routledge

268 pages | 5 B/W Illus.

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This book traces the history of the Chinese concept of "Warm diseases" (wenbing) from antiquity to the SARS epidemic. Following wenbing from its birth to maturity and even life in modern times Marta Hanson approaches the history of Chinese medicine from a new angle. She explores the possibility of replacing older narratives that stress progress and linear development with accounts that pay attention to geographic, intellectual, and cultural diversity. By doing so her book integrates the history of Chinese medicine into broader historical studies in a way that has not so far been attempted, and addresses the concerns of a readership much wider than that of Chinese medicine specialists.

The persistence of wenbing and other Chinese disease concepts in the present can be interpreted as resistance to the narrowing of meaning in modern biomedical nosology. Attention to conceptions of disease and space reveal a previously unexamined discourse the author calls the Chinese geographic imagination. Tracing the changing meanings of "Warm diseases" over two thousand years allows for the exploration of pre-modern understandings of the nature of epidemics, their intersection with this geographic imagination, and how conceptions of geography shaped the sociology of medical practice and knowledge in late imperial China.

Speaking of Epidemics in Chinese Medicine opens a new window on interpretive themes in Chinese cultural history as well as on contemporary studies of the history of science and medicine beyond East Asia.


"Marta Hanson's thorough research into the process of change in Chinese medicine is well worth a place on practitioners' bookshelves." - Nancy Holroyde-Downing, The Journal of Chinese Medicine, February 2012.

"A groundbreaking work on the history of Chinese epidemiology… rather than simply being a rich description of a long neglected aspect of Chinese medicine, Hanson’s book engages in a powerful analysis of the material at hand…Hanson’s book stands as a most significant contribution to understanding epidemiological theory and practice in Imperial China. At the same time, it provides social historians and anthropologists of medicine with a new focus on spatiality and the ‘geographic imagination’ of disease. This demonstrates clearly that far from being confined to Hippocratic or Western-colonial medicine, the territorialisation of disease constitutes a significant governmental apparatus for non-western imperial and state formations." - Christos Lynteris, University of Cambridge, 2013.

"Informative, rewarding reading for anyone interested in the history of medicine, of science, or of China in general. Summing Up: Highly recommended." Choice

Table of Contents

Part 1: Foundation and Inheritances 1. Medical History in Three Themes 2. A Deep History of the Chinese Geographic Imagination: The Five Regions, Northwest-Southeast, and the Southern Shift Part 2: New Ming Medical Boundaries 3: The Geographic Imagination in Ming Medicine: Northern Purgatives, Southern Restoratives, and Conceptions of North and South 4. Ming Medical Frontiers: Diseases of the Far South, New Conceptions of Contagion 5. Ming Medical Scepticism: Epidemiological Crisis, Cosmological Criticism Part 3: Early-Modern and Modern Medical Transformations 6. Matters of Place: Epistemological Divergence, Genealogical Division 7. Emergence of Traditions: The Nineteenth-Century Genealogy and Geography of Warm Diseases Conclusion New and Old Nosologies in Modern China: From the Geographic Imagination to Distribution of Diseases in China (and back again)

About the Author

Marta Hanson is Assistant Professor in the Department of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University, USA. Her research interests are in the history of medicine, disease, and public health in China and the cultural history of Chinese arts of memory.

About the Series

Needham Research Institute Series

Joseph Needham's 'Science and Civilisation' series began publication in the 1950s. At first, it was seen as a piece of brilliant but isolated pioneering. However, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is clear that Needham's work has succeeded in creating a vibrant new intellectual field in the West. The books in this series cover topics relating broadly to the practice of science, technology and medicine in East Asia, including China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The emphasis is on traditional forms of knowledge and practice, but without excluding modern studies which connect the topics with their historical and cultural context.

Learn more…

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
HISTORY / Asia / China
MEDICAL / Diseases
MEDICAL / History
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Ethnic Studies / General