CASE 2:  Medicine and Childbirth

One function of medical texts was to educate doctors and exchange information among doctors. Doctors often made records of their own experiences and ideas to help themselves remember important information or to teach their disciples. They might publish books to promote their own medical views or to argue with other doctors about the way a certain disease should be treated. Doctors also wrote medical handbooks and study guides to teach others how to become doctors.

At the same time, ordinary people also read medical texts to learn how to diagnose and treat their own diseases. In eighteenth-century China, anyone could go to a pharmacy and buy the same medicines that doctors used. So people routinely treated themselves with advice from medical books. Depending on their familiarity with medicine, they could use books originally written for doctors and/or popular household guides like Treatise on Successful Childbirth. These medical amateurs often practiced medicine as a kind of hobby, creating potions and pills to give to their friends and family. Some of these people then would write books describing the techniques that they had found to be useful and effective. Other people, like Jizhai, would read through the medical classics and try to simplify their ideas so that ordinary people could understand how to use them at home. But, the simplest way for an amateur to become involved in medical publishing was to pay a print shop to make copies of an existing text. For example, in many editions of Treatise on Successful Childbirth, we also find that the person who reprinted the text added a few pages describing his favorite medicines or recounting stories about miracle cures.

Besides providing a form of medical education and health care, medical texts also could serve nonmedical functions. One was making money. You can imagine that medical publishing was a profitable business, especially if you had a book that doctors and nondoctors alike would buy. The owner of a publishing house or bookstore might assemble a team to produce a new edition of a famous medical book, or he might even edit one himself. Another important function was charity. People in eighteenth-century China thought that publishing useful books and giving them away for free was a good way to benefit society. And what could be more useful than a medical book teaching people how to stay healthy? Besides a genuine desire to help others, people also believed that the gods would protect and reward them if they did good deeds. In fact, this was a reason that many people reprinted Treatise on Successful Childbirth.

Understanding the format and text of old medical texts is not easy. To find out how to do it, check out CRITICAL ASSESSMENT
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