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Memories of Birth: Rereading Shichan lun for Women’s Experiences

Tue, June 23, 9:00 to 10:55am, South Building, Floor: 8th Floor, S802


Shichan lun 十產論 (Ten Topics on Birth) a twelfth century medical work, recorded a standard childbirth, followed by birth complications in graduating severity, and techniques required to manage those problems. By the late imperial period, Shichan lun would become ubiquitous in medical texts that contained sections on childbirth, as well as in specialized works for women. No other work with equivalent detail on childbirth or on techniques has been preserved, and Shichan lun was the classic on the topic within the medical canon from the mid Ming period to end of the Qing. In this paper, I argue that Shichan lun can be read as a work that collects the personal memories of women’s birthing experiences. Such intimate and individual recollections by birthing women in pain or experiencing specific complications were not usually written down. When read through an anthropological lens Shichan lun was a record of conversations with women who recalled birth experiences, recounted the quality of pain, and described the physical discomfort caused by the fetus about to exit their bodies. These were also conversations with women practitioners who were took care of bodily parts, fluids and excreta and saved lives. Male medical author(s) went on to strip details from these women’s narratives, removing accounts of subjective pain, trauma or even joy. Divested of these personal memories, Shichan lun would come to function as an enduring medical work. I will therefore attempt to retrieve those intimate memories of birthing pain and of the skills of midwives, appropriated by the male medical author.