Comparative Guts

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Anatomical Images in Northern Song China

Natalie Köhle

Lecturer in History and Philosophy of Science, School of History and Philosophy of Science, The University of Sydney

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.

The history of the Cun zhen tu is intimately connected to Daoist traditions of bodily cultivation. Its illustrations were modelled on a series of preexisting Daoist images of the viscera, and in the centuries following its creation, it was used and disseminated in the context of meditative, alchemical, and longevity practices (see The body maps of Master Yan Luo). These strong Daoist connections notwithstanding, it is clear that the Cun zhen tu was initially composed by and for physicians.

The Cun zhen tu belongs to a particular genre of images, named tu 圖. Tu are technical illustrations that first emerged in the context of Song innovations in science and technology. They are characterized by an intrinsic combination of images with text, and they were intended to transmit hands-on, technical knowledge that could not be easily conveyed by means of textual explanations. In this way, the Cun zhen tu does not only depict existing knowledge that was derived from the classics, but also communicates new, empirically gained knowledge, derived from its author’s in situ observation of the dissected criminals’ viscera.

An analysis of the textual component of the Cun zhen tu shows that this new knowledge was mobilized to address and clarify contemporary controversies about the position and shapes of the viscera, as well as about the pathways and mechanisms by means of which the viscera are connected and communicate to each other. That is to say, the Cun zhen tu is not interested in explaining digestion as the process during which food is turned into digestive and vital fluids; it rather focusses on the structures that hold and guide those fluids: the ‘connectors’, ‘tubes’, ‘mouths’, ‘gates’, and ‘membranes’ that afford communication among the viscera and regulate the flow, retention, and expulsion of fluids and excretions. In short, the Cun zhen tu depicts and discusses a structural body rather than a fluid body. While the original Cun zhen tu that was created by Yang Jie is lost, its images were preserved and disseminated through copies and excerpts in subsequent Chinese medical treatises (published under different titles by subsequent authors). It is no exaggeration to say that the Cun zhen tu has influenced virtually all premodern representations of the viscera in East Asia, see Ming-Qing illustrations of the organs, An example of 17th-century Sino-European Cross-cultural medical history and Images of the digestive organs in Korea. It even attracted attention beyond China: two of the earliest extant reproductions of the Cun zhen tu are found in a Persian (see Arabic Materials) and a Japanese work (the Manʼampo). Indeed, in terms of its subject matter and impact, the Cun zhen tu invites comparison with Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica (1543).

This contribution presents two of the oldest extant copies of the Cun zhen tu, contained in the Man’ampō 万安方 (Myriad Relief Prescriptions), an important medieval Japanese medical work, composed during 1315-25 by the Buddhist priest and physician Kajiwara Shōzen 梶原性全 (1266–1337), and in the Yi Yin Tangye Zhongjing Guang Wei Dafa 伊尹湯液仲景広為大法 (Yi Yin’s Decoction [Classic] Propagated as Grand Methodology by [Zhang] Zhongjing, hereafter referred to as [Guang Wei Dafa], composed by the Northern Song scholar Wang Haogu 王好古 (1200–1264).