The Many Colors of Excrement: Galen and the History of Chinese Phlegm

Natalie Köhle

Venue: Room 1505, 1555 Century Avenue, NYU Shanghai
Date: Monday, September 23, 2019
Time: 17:30 - 19:00 CST

If you wanted to know what’s going on inside your body, where would you look? Bodily discharges seem like an obvious place. Hippocrates and Galen routinely scrutinized sputa, stool and urine, and by and large these practices still appear to make sense to us today. But the intuition to search for signs of physiological processes in bodily outflows is not universal. Classical Chinese doctors paid scant attention to the appearance of excrement. Its sensory qualities, as perceived by sight, smell, and structure of bodily discharges outside of the body, were first described in 1327, in a treatise on phlegm. Many concepts and practices in this treatise, composed by the Daoist recluse Wang Gui 王珪 (1264-1354), were entirely unprecedented in Chinese medicine. At the same time, they resembled core concepts and practices of Greco-Islamic medicine.

This lecture will analyze Wang Gui’s conceptual and diagnostic innovations. It will situate them in the context of contemporary Chinese medical debates and compare them to like practices in Galenic medicine. It suggests to understand Wang Gui’s innovations as a response to his encounter with Galenic diagnostics, as they were practiced by Islamic doctors in Mongol Yuan China (1271-1368). At the same time, it draws attention to the different meanings of Wang Gui’s vs Galenic examinations of bodily discharges. Which concepts and practices were transmitted in this instance of a practical (and likely non-textual) knowledge transmission? And why?

Natalie Köhle is a historian of Chinese medicine and the body with comparative interests in Indian and Greco-Islamic medical history. After receiving her doctoral degree from Harvard University in 2016, Natalie was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University. She is now Research Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Hong Kong Baptist University and works on a global history of Chinese phlegm (tan 痰). Her work has been published in The Journal of the American Oriental Society and Late Imperial China.

Introduction and moderation of the Q&A by Arunabh Ghosh, Associate Professor of History at Harvard University and a Visiting Scholar in Residence, Center for Global Asia, NYU Shanghai.

This event is cosponsored by the Center for Global Asia and the Global China Studies Program, NYU Shanghai.

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