The Image Series: 12 Meridians

Series October 23, 2015 5:44 pm

The Image Series features HASTS students and guest authors who are invited to freely write about one image relevant to their work.  This is the first in a set of curated posts on the HASTS Blog.  To contribute to this series, contact Lan Li at


“The relationship among the avenues of the 12 jingmai (meridians)”

Wang Xuetai, Acu-Moxa Handbook [Zhenjiu Shouce] 1966, p 58

It may not look like it, but the diagram above is a map of the body.   We usually think of body maps as ideal types (in the Ian Hacking sense), like anatomical atlases, but the map above illustrates physiology.  Or, I should probably say, idealized physiological movement (if you look closely, on the two axes are the hands, feet, head, and chest/abdomen).  It was published in 1966 by Wang Xuetai (1925-2008), a biomedically-trained physiologist, who became one of the most vocal supporters of meridian theory in Beijing.  How was it that a biomedically-trained physiologist ended up supporting meridian theory?  Well, you’ll just have to read chapter 4 of my dissertation.  Or come to my talk at this year’s 4S or HSS.

But back to the image.  There is an entire backstory of how Wang came to draw this image, what he was arguing for, and what he was arguing against, but maybe I should save that for a different post.

Ok fine, I won’t.  If you want a thorough account of the social and political history of medicine at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century in China, check out Sean Lei’s Neither Donkey Nor Horse and Bridie Andrews’ Making of Modern Chinese Medicine.  What is relevant here is that in the early 20th century, “Chinese Medicine” as state-recognized and state-supported institution was in its nascent stages.  Some reformers were petitioning for the newly-founded Ministry of Health to regulate Chinese medicine in 1928/29, maybe even abolish it, require practitioners to obey standards of professionalization–just do something about it.  Modernizing the nation was at stake.  So what role could the cultural legacy of medicine in China play?  In the 1920s, biomedical practitioners were allying themselves with state-building efforts, and for the first time, so did self-identified Chinese medical practitioners.

While conflicting attempts to reform the state were happening, some practitioners looked to resurrect acupuncture moxibustion as a systematic approach to the body.  Distinguished practitioners, such as Cheng Dan’an (1899-1957), drew body maps, fixed acu-moxa sites, and explained that the meridian paths–paths from which areas for certain sites for manipulation arise–were really just some kind of physical manifestation of the nervous system. (Note: Cheng became famous in the 1940s and 50s, but he was relatively unknown when first started to write his book on revising acupuncture moxibustion in the late 1920s. He also ended up abandoning his support for nerves-explain-all, but that might also be for a different post.)

This blanket explanation of a body of nerves still exists among medical researchers in China when they describe acupuncture moxibustion and needling therapies, but it’s black-boxed the body in a way that confuses lots of people.

When the young Wang Xuetai followed the renegade Communists into the outskirts of Yan’an in the 1940s and began to learn about Chinese medicine, he became more invested in presenting a systematic approach to the body that was distinctly Chinese.  His mentor, Zhu Lian (1909-1978) wanted to completely abandon meridian theory because according to her (and Pavlov) it’s all about the nerves. And not just nerves in the physical sense, but some unknown physiological “higher activity” of nerves.

Wang wasn’t convinced.  In the 1960s, he started to draw his own version of the 12 main meridians.  For Wang, this was a coherent system; the meridians were all connected to each other.  (If you try tracing any of the paths, you start going in circles.)  At this point, he’s learned about how each of the 12 meridians corresponded to 12 organs, how half of the meridians were yin meridians, and the other half were yang meridians, how they shifted from yin to yang at the hands, and from yang to yin at the feet.  The yin meridians (on the left) passed through yin organs–lungs, pericardium, heart, kidney, liver, spleen–and the yang meridians (on the right) correlated to yang organs–the large intestine, sanjiao, small intestine, bladder, gallbladder.  It’s pretty basic for Wang, but crucial as a starting point.

Wang held onto this image throughout the Cultural Revolution and even until 2003, when he edited a book on Chinese medical illustrations.  So, while he was assigned to determine the biomedical qualities of acupuncture moxibustion, he gravitated towards meridian theory and illustrated physiological movement.  This was an image meant to capture motion, and not meant to fix sites on a static body.


 My gif rendition of Wang’s map of the 12 main meridians.

I presented this image as part of my talk for JASmed this year and really took the time to animate, articulate, and make sense of Wang’s map.  In other words, photoshopping the living daylights out of this map was my excuse to get to know it intimately.  I had written about it in a chapter draft, but I didn’t get to look at it as closely as I did while prepping for a presentation.   Now I can talk about it like it’s the back of my hand, which I also know vaguely, but can at least confidently talk about .  So hopefully this exercise will be valuable for others too.  Which should be the entire point of The Image Series!

Lan A. Li is a cultural historian of science and medicine in the HASTS program at MIT. Her research centers on representing and visualizing the body in Chinese medicine and biomedicine throughout the 20th century. In particular, her dissertation compares how mapping areas of affected sensation and meridian tracts conflicted and cohered with testimonies of the body among physiologists in China, Britain, and the United States. In her spare time, Lan is also a documentary filmmaker, collaborating with integrative practitioners in India, Brazil, and China. She is supported by the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, NSF Dissertation Improvement Grant, and an alumna of the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans.

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