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USC Historian Sifts World's Oldest Printed Medical Books For Clues To Riddle Of Gender

Historian Charlotte Furth's groundbreaking study of 700 years of Chinese gynecological tradition presents an intricately detailed picture of another civilization's ideas of sex and gender, viewed through the lens of its medical practice.

"A Flourishing Yin: Gender in China's Medical History, 960-1665" (University of California Press, 1999) is the result of more than 15 years of scholarship in primary source materials that in large part had never been explored by English-language researchers. These sources came from the brushes of scholar- doctors who, beginning in the Song dynasty (960-1279), centuries before Gutenberg, published their clinical wisdom in printed books.

More than 8,000 medical titles from the period studied in Furth's new book survive, virtually none of them translated. In many cases, she was the first American scholar ever to read these works.

Furth, a professor of history in the University of Southern California College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, first learned about this huge body of material in 1982 as a visiting Fulbright professor at Beijing University. Following the 1949 revolution, the Chinese government had made an energetic effort to find, preserve and catalog early writings on medicine, regarding the tradition as a national treasure. But the Cold War had kept Western scholars largely unaware of the material, and even had they known, the subject was far from the interests of most researchers in the field during those years.

Not so for Furth, who in 1982 was already interested in the then-emerging field of gender studies, as well as being deeply involved in the history of thought and of science. "When I found an original edition of an 18th-century manual on childbirth," Furth later wrote, "the direction [of my research] was set."

As a feminist scholar, Furth was challenged by the project of exploring ideas about the body and bodily gender in such an unfamiliar culture as China's. "I wanted to see how far I could pu
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Contact: Eric Mankin
mankin@usc.edu
213-740-9344
University of Southern California
22-Apr-1999


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