NYU Shanghai Lecture: Fluid Fire

The Rise of Phlegm within the Chinese World

Natalie Köhle

The Australian National University

Medical treatises of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) make constant reference to phlegm (tan 痰) as both cause and consequence of disease. Phlegm figures as a central, indispensable concept in the Chinese imagination of the body and its pathologies. Curiously, however, the Huangdi neijing 黃帝內經 (first cent. B.C.), the earliest and foundational classic of Chinese medicine, does not mention it at all. The rise to prominence of the discourse of phlegm represents one of the most important changes in Chinese medical theory after the classical period. What does this transformation mean, and how did it occur?

This talk traces the history of phlegm from its first appearance in the second century A.D. to its full development in the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) yangsheng 養生treatise Taiding yangsheng zhulun 泰定養生主論(1338). By demonstrating that one of the central concepts of postclassical Chinese medicine has received Indic and Islamic influences, the speaker proposes to rethink the history of Chinese medicine; not as a monolithic, Chinese tradition, but as a tradition that is intrinsically linked to histories of neighbouring medical traditions.

Natalie Köhle is a historian of Chinese medicine, culture, and the body. Her research focuses on the history of humours and fluids in China. She is interested in the intersection of the history of humours, particularly phlegm, with the history of fire and the passions in Chinese medicine, and in the connections of the conceptual development of phlegm in Chinese medicine with the Āyurvedic and Greco-Islamic medical traditions. She is also interested in Qing Sino-Tibetan Buddhist relations, and Manchu studies.

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