Title

Man and tree, tumour and burl: Complicating the ecology of illness in early and medieval China

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2-1-2021

Subject Area

ARRAY(0x559694e49838)

Abstract

In early and medieval China, the natural world was understood, to an extent, to mirror human conduct and action. Because human events were often ap-prehended as poetic and metaphoric extensions of larger elemental processes, people in early and medieval China tended to see tumours as moral punishment meted out by all-seeing Heaven (tian) or karmic retribution in Buddhism. One would think, then, that burls, the grotesque, malformed intumescences bulg-ing from trunks of trees would be relegated to the realm of the wicked and inauspicious. Surprisingly, this is not the case. Examining a series of passages involving burls in a wide range of early and medieval Chinese texts, this essay seeks to complicate this rather facile moral schema. The anomalous tumes-cent growth, whether on tree or man, did not simply betoken evil. At different times, the polysemous tumour-burl might augur future greatness, serve as a mi-raculous womb chamber, help one assume a twisted guise assumed to survive tumultuous times, impress with its remarkable aesthetic asymmetry, or merely provide a moment of levity.

Publication Title

Environment and History

Volume

27

Issue

1

First Page

155

Last Page

173

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

10.3197/096734019X15463432086928

ISSN

09673407

E-ISSN

17527023

Share

COinS