Natalie Köhle

The Many Colors of Excrement: Galen and the History of Chinese Phlegm

Tue, February 21, 2023

Phlegm figures as a major cause and consequence of disease in late imperial Chinese medicine. Curiously, however, when we go back to the classics, the very notion of phlegm is entirely absent. The rise of phlegm is one of the fundamental transformations in the history of Chinese medicine. This article suggests that the little-known Yuan dynasty treatise On the Art of Nourishing Life (1338), which is notable for extending Chinese phlegm theory in unprecedented ways, was pivotal for this transformation. Noting a strong resemblance of the innovations of this treatise with Galenic medical theories, this article argues that they were inspired by an encounter with the Galenic medical tradition. It submits that these innovations radically altered pre-existing Chinese understandings of the body’s materiality and the nature of disease. And it calls for closer attention to the transcultural movements of theories and concepts in the historiography of Chinese and global medicine.