Amanda Respess, assistant professor of history at The Ohio State University at Marion, gave students the opportunity to get hands-on with history. The class, which focused on gender and sexuality in Middle Period China, allowed students to learn about how women’s health issues were treated using herbs. With the support from the East Asian Studies Center and The Medical Heritage Center, students were able to access a newly translated edition of the Compendium of Materia Medica, or Běncǎo gāngmù (本草纲目), as their primary resource. This encyclopedia gave students information about the historical uses of herbs and other medicines in China from antiquity through the Sui, Tang and Ming dynasties.
Doctors took great interest in women’s health during the Middle Period in China, which marked the beginnings of the gynecological field in China. With a focus on childbearing, sexuality and menstrual cycles, students learned about the history of the herbs used to treat women’s health issues. As part of a class project, each student took a closer look at the use of one herb. They then chose seven of the herbs that they felt best represented the history of women’s medicine in Middle Period China.
The Medical Heritage Center will preserve this legacy of herb use by housing the seven herb samples in its collection. Collections Curator Kristin Rodgers is eager to share this piece of medical history with visitors, remarking that the herbs are a great addition to the center’s glass and bamboo cups, which are used to promote healthy blood circulation in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The students also compiled their own Virtual Materia Medica, which details each herb and its traditional use.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, herbs function on a philosophy of balance, between yin and yang, feminine and masculine. Practitioners understand that “every plant embodied certain qualities of the cosmos and of nature,” Respess said. Bodies, in turn, also express these qualities. “Our body is sort of like a microcosm of the whole universe.” In order to restore harmony to a person’s body, a governing body or the universe, checks must be applied when problems arise.
Respess notes that the herbs are meant to work in harmony with one another based on their properties, such as warmth or coolness. A practitioner uses a specific combination of these properties in order to bring the patient back into harmony and balance.
Traditional Chinese Medicine is very popular in the United States despite, or perhaps because of, its differences from the Western biomedical model of medicine. In fact, “Chinese medicine is something people seek out – even when they have access to Western medicine,” Respess said. “It’s particularly popular in America for fertility issues.” For many women’s health issues, such as infertility or painful periods, Traditional Chinese medicine offers specific treatments where Western medicine may dismiss the issue as not being a medical problem. This attention to and validation of women’s pain offers a welcome contrast to the impersonal nature of medical care women face with Western medicine, Respess explained.
Respess looks forward to future classes that will be able to study the herbs in person. “Students have a lot of opportunities to learn about East Asia here at Ohio State, but this one was truly hands-on,” said Mitch Lerner, director of the East Asian Studies Center. “It’s always exciting to move beyond the textbooks and Respess’ class certainly did that!”