I have found it extremely difficult to write even a simple blog post about Professor Michele Thompson’s talk on Vietnamese medicine.
If, as Yi-Li Wu said in her introductory remarks, the greatest questions in the study of Asian Medicine are 1) What is Asia; and 2) What is medicine, then how is one supposed to write coherently about the historical interactions between Vietnamese and Chinese medicine?
The modern geographical and cultural boundaries of Vietnam and China are quite clear, but when looking at the historical period in question (the first millennium CE), the boundaries in question are those that existed between the Viet peoples in the south (modern southern China and northern Vietnam) and the Han peoples in the north (modern central China). This is why, in an effort to make this post more intelligible, I’ve avoid using the words ‘Vietnamese’ and ‘Chinese’ entirely, and instead refer only to the Viet and the Han peoples.
And let’s not even get into the question of what is medicine…
There is another issue here, which is that the primary window through which modern historians look at this period is textual, and there was only one written language in this area: that of the Han people. Even the Viet people used Han characters to record their history. In a situation like this any textual researcher must be willing to ‘read between the lines’ and understand not only the writers’ situation, but also that of the people the writers were interacting with and writing about.
I’m simplifying a lot here, but according to my understanding Professor Thompson used three approaches to challenge the conventional assumptions that “Southern medicine came from the North”, or “Viet medicine came from the Han“. The first approach was to examine the textual evidence involving the usage of herbs that only grew in the South. The second was to ‘read between the lines’ of the accounts of northern Han officials sent south to control densely populated Viet areas. The third was to simply look for solid evidence that Han medicine did, as is commonly held, move from north to south, with local southern cultures (the Viet in particular) doing nothing more than supplying herbs for trade to the north.
1) Drawing on the work of Donald Harper, Professor Thompson examined the texts found at Mawangdui, a tomb dating from 168 B.C.E located in modern Changsha, Hunan province (in the south of China) - specifically the document given the name of《五十二病方》(‘Prescriptions for Fifty-two Diseases'). The prescriptions or recipes contained in the document make extensive use of herbs the natural growth range of which was Southern. This includes herbs such as cinnamon, black pepper and hemp. Even though some of these herbs were considered ‘precious’ and commanded high prices in trade between the Viet and the Han, they appeared in many of the prescriptions in the Mawangdui text, indicating to Prof Thompson that the people who developed those prescriptions regarded these herbs as commonplace. Cinnamon, for example, occurs in 13 of the 283 prescriptions, and is the single most called-for ingredient in all the prescriptions. This provides some evidence that, in contrast to the prevailing view that the Han in the north imported these medicinals and developed their usage, these prescriptions or recipes were actually developed in the southern regions.
2) During the period of direct Han rule (43 to 939 C.E.), the areas what is now Northern Vietnam and Southern China had a relatively high population density and plentiful food supply. In Han records of this time by officials sent to control the area, the area was described as ‘venomous, poisonous, pestilential’, and populated with practitioners of witchcraft who could summon disease-causing mists. However, the very fact that the Han attributed falling ill to the work of local enemies practicing witchcraft suggests to Thompson that the locals were not getting ill, at least not from the same diseases that were plaguing the Northern officials; this can be extended to imply that the Southerners had enough knowledge of hygiene and medicine to allow residents of high population density areas to live in relative health. This again is not evidence that Viet medicine had an influence on Han medicine, but it counteracts the prevailing view (perhaps based in part on a superficial reading of the same accounts) that the southern areas were backward when it comes to hygiene and medicine.
3) There is simply a lack of solid evidence that Northern medicine was formally introduced to the region. The prevailing view is that Han medicine was introduced during the period of direct Han rule (43 to 939 C.E.), but the earliest textual evidence dates to the 1400’s, when a Viet medical text showing clear influence of Han medical theory was written.
What I gained from this talk was the understanding that 1) there is little evidence to support the prevailing view of the interactions between Viet and Han medicine, and 2) there is a fair bit of evidence suggesting that the Viet did more than just supply medicinals to Han traders; rather they developed the use of these local medicinals and applied them in ways that later became associated with Han medicine.
I encourage anyone interested in learning more to get a copy of Southern Medicine for Southern People: Vietnamese Medicine in the Making, edited by Laurence Monnais, C. Michele Thompson and Ayo Wahlberg.
*Map credit: Author: Thomas A. Lessman. Source URL: http://www.worldhistorymaps.info/maps.html