The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine (Zone Books)

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A meditation on the human body as described by the classical Greeks and by the ancient Chinese.

At the heart of medical history is a deep enigma. The true structure and workings of the human body are, we casually assume, everywhere the same, a universal reality. But then we look into the past, and our sense of reality wavers: accounts of the body in diverse medical traditions often seem to describe mutually alien, almost unrelated worlds. The Expressiveness of the Body meditates on the contrasts between the human body described in classical Greek medicine and the body as envisaged by physicians in ancient China. It asks how this most basic of human realities came to be conceived by two sophisticated civilizations in radically diverging ways. And it seeks answers in fresh and unexpected topics, such as the history of tactile knowledge, the relationship between ways of seeing and ways of listening, and the evolution of bloodletting.

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What are our bodies trying to tell us? In the scholarly yet delicately beautiful The Expressiveness of the Body, Japanese scholar Shigehisa Kuriyama examines two widely divergent traditions of diagnostic examination: Greek and Chinese. While at first glance it would seem that this would entail a straightforward familiar vs. exotic dichotomy for Western readers, only a short way into the book we realize that the ancient Greeks were just as foreign to us as the ancient Chinese. While there is some greater resemblance to modern medicine in the works of Galen and his contemporaries, Kuriyama shows us that their struggle to "decode" the body's signals was just as arbitrary--and just as accurate--as works like the Huangdi Neijing.

Showing that the often dramatic differences between their attitudes about signs such as pulse, breath, and blood both developed from and informed deeper beliefs about the nature of the body, Kuriyama exposes the highly subjective artistry of medicine. Like the proverbial blind men feeling the different parts of the elephant, the ancients focused exclusively on one set of traits and signs and developed a complex theoretical framework around it. Well documented and handsomely illustrated, The Expressiveness of the Body pokes and prods into the space between precise anatomical knowledge and the understanding of qi flow to find the rest of the elephant beyond the trunk, legs, and tail. --Rob Lightner

About the Author:

Shigehisa Kuriyama is Associate Professor and Staff Researcher at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies.

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