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Daoing Medicine: Practice Theory for Considering Religion and Medicine in Early Imperial China

Michael Stanley-Baker


This article is a critique of the neologism “Daoist medicine” (daojiao yixue 道教醫學) that has recently entered scholarly discourse in China. It provides evidence that this expression is an anachronism which found its way into scholarly discourse in 1995 and has now become so widely used that it is seen as representing an undisputed “historical fact.” It demonstrates that the term has no precursor in the pre-modern record, and critiques two substantive attempts to set up “Daoist medicine” as an analytical term. It reviews earlier scholarship on Daoism and medicine, or healing, within the larger context of religion and medicine, and shows how attention has shifted, particularly in relation to the notion of overlap or intersection of these historical fields of study. It proposes that earlier frameworks grounded in epistemology or simple social identity do not effectively represent the complexity of these therapies. Practice theory, on the other hand, provides a useful analytic for unpacking the organisation and transmission of curing knowledge. Such an approach foregrounds the processes and dynamics of assemblage, rather than theoretical abstractions. The article concludes by proposing a focus on the Daoing of medicine, that is, the variety of processes by which therapies come to be known as Daoist, rather than imposing an anachronistic concept like Daoist medicine.

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