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Healing and Ritual Imagination in Chinese Medicine: The Multiple Interpretations of Zhuyou

East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine 38
Cho, P.S. Yonsei University,
Seoul, South Korea
2015 Biology, Foundations

In the Chinese medical corpus, ritual healing largely fell under the rubric of zhuyou to uncover and expel the unknown, imperceptible, and occult causes of illness. Often dealing with uncertain or incurable cases, zhuyou remained at the cutting-edge of contemporary medicine. For a rising medical elite after the Northern Song, zhuyou was the branch of medicine to flexibly incorporate and critique the variety of ritual therapies into orthodox practice.

Zhuyou employed prayer, incantations, talismans, gestures, and drugs in a nuanced clinical encounter to reveal the hidden root of disorder ranging from a blockage of qi, spirit possession, emotional imbalance, or loss of virtue. These rituals opened an imaginative space for therapeutic play where patients and healers could use spiritual proxies and props to address difficult emotions or issues that were often the hidden cause of affliction.

The development of zhuyou also reflected the changing role of ritual in the history of Chinese medicine and the exchanges among physicians, Daoist priests, and other ritual healers. The significance of ritual in Chinese medical history has largely remained unclear as most editions of medical classics republished since the early twentieth century excise relevant chapters and zhuyou manuscripts, until recently, were uncatalogued.

The article was published in: East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine 38: 71-113.

Full article

This work was supported (in part) by the Fetzer Franklin Fund of the John E. Fetzer Memorial Trust.