Drawing on a wide range of Chinese sources from the seventh to the twentieth century—medical treatises, religious texts, encyclopedias, divination manuals, and novels—this project builds upon the central insight that Chinese healers instrumentalized their bodies, especially their hands, in complex ways that augmented their cognitive capacities. Medical authors also integrated these techniques from divination manuals demonstrating how closely aligned divination techniques were with medical prognostication strategies in Chinese culture. Grasping Heaven and Earth refers to the concepts of the natural-medical world considered essential for Chinese healers to grasp both bodily—that is, with their hands—and conceptually—with their minds. Furthermore, the concept of “body-as-technology” covers a wide range of instructions directed toward healers: from how they should use their own breath to track time during pulse-taking to when they need to be pure in thought as well as in body to ensure therapeutic efficacy during healing rituals. By focusing on thinking with the body and the body-as-technology, this project offers a model for how to better integrate the history of the body and medicine into general Chinese history.
The work of cognitive scientists Andy Clark and David Chalmer about the extended mind, embodied cognition, and incorporation, has also been productive to think through evidence of the many innovative ways Chinese healers instrumentalized their bodies to track time as well as measure, remember, calculate, and prognosticate in the premodern period. We moderns, by contrast, have increasingly deputized such functions to the myriad of software-based technologies from phones to computers that structure our minds as well as dominate our daily lives. This historical analysis of corporealized cognitive practices in premodern China should help better historize them within the global history of medicine at a time when medical instruments have become external to physicians, calculators have taken over the basic math once done in their brains, and computer software programs have come to increasingly characterize the modern clinical encounter more than the physician’s own clinical experience.