Antje Richter's Website

Health & Illness in Early Medieval Chinese Literature


Since letter writers often communicated medical conditions, treatments, and suffering—either their own or that of their correspondents—my long-standing research in personal letters has led to a new project, the exploration of illness narratives across genres in early medieval China. I am studying how illness and healing are represented in autobiographical reports, literary criticism, poetry, historical accounts, fantastic tales, and religious texts to find out what role these representations play in their larger narrative contexts and what they tell us about the medieval Chinese understanding of health, illness, and healing.

Interpretation & the Art of Living:
Health & Illness in Early Medieval Chinese Literature

               Book Project

The medical humanities have been a vibrant academic and applied field for several decades. Working in two different directions, they try to connect with the medical professions in clinical training and practice on the one hand, while on the other hand inquiring into literary and artistic representations of illness and healing as experiences at the heart of the human condition. The latter approach informs my book project, Interpretation & the Art of Living: Health & Illness in Early Medieval Chinese Literature. It will be the first book to explore the abundance of illness narratives transmitted in non-medical texts from early medieval China (ca. 200–600 CE).

Introducing literary representations of illness and healing in different genres and registers of style—from literary criticism to autobiographical accounts, poetry, historical narratives, fantastic tales, and religious texts—the book gathers a broad spectrum of literati views on illness and healing as they evolved during this period. The most tangible analytical focus of the book is autobiographical: reading illness narratives as documents of their authors' struggle to make sense of their physicality, an aspect often shunned in Chinese self-writing. Because illness is situated at a distinct intersection of the individual and the socio-cultural, an equally important analytical focus is rhetorical: uncovering the unspoken conventions of writing about illness in medieval China. Knowledge about the rhetorical and ideological functions of illness narratives, both within their surrounding texts and in their cultural contexts, throws new light on historical, literary, and intellectual developments in China.

My articles on the topic include:

with Charles Chace (1958–2018), "The Trouble with Wang Xizhi: Illness and Healing in a Fourth-Century Chinese Correspondence." T'oung Pao 103 (2017): 33–93.

(in print) "Illness and Healing in the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa sūtra." In Buddhism and Healing in Medieval East Asia: Global and Local Perspectives. Ed. C. Pierce Salguero and Andrew Macomber. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai'i Press.

(forthcoming) "Between Self-Care & Self-Harm: Literati Concern with Well-being in Wenxin diaolong and Beyond."