The Song dynasty lasted from 960 until 1279. It is divided into two time periods. The earlier period is known as the Northern Song. It refers to the period from 960 to 1127 when the center of the Chinese empire was in the North-East. The Song emperors were in frequent conflict with their Inner Asian neighbours, and they eventually lost control over the northern part of the empire. Thereupon they withdrew to the South. This later period is known as the Southern Song (1127–1279).
Northern Song China experienced an exponential growth in population and a territorial expansion from the traditional northern heartlands into new territories in the south. These demographic shifts led to major socio-economic changes, such as urbanization, the development of rural market centers, and the onset of inter-regional and long-distance trade. They also spurred cultural innovation in the fields of philosophy, science, and technology.
Not least because of an unprecedented wave of epidemics that had plagued the early Song empire, the Northern Song emperors were particularly interested in medicine. They personally oversaw the collection, standardization, and printing of medical works, and they also established imperially sponsored medical schools. It was in the context of this heightened interest in medicine that the imperial court ordered the renowned physician Yang Jie 楊介 to attend a large-scale, official execution of a group of rebels. Yang Jie, together with an accompanying artist, was tasked with observing the dissection of the rebels’ bodies, and with creating in situ drawings—or anatomical illustrations—of their viscera.
Yang Jie’s drawings form the basis of the Cun zhen tu 存真圖 (Charts on Preserving the True [Essence]), a seminal work on the viscera in Chinese medicine and yangsheng 養生 (care of life; bodily cultivation), which pairs a series of in situ drawings of human viscera with short, explanatory texts. The Cun zhen tu is exceptional. For one, there was very little interest in dissection in China before or after the Northern Song. But even globally, the Cun zhen tu figures among the earliest anatomical illustrations of the human viscera.