Man and tree, tumour and burl: Complicating the ecology of illness in early and medieval China
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.
Environment and History
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Rothschild, N.H. (2021) Man and tree, tumour and burl: Complicating the ecology of illness in early and medieval China. Environment and History, 27(1), 155-173.