China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
How do we understand experience and its relationship to textual knowledge in pre-modern China? This paper addresses this question by examining a particular genre of medical source: formula books (fangshu 方書). Focusing on two works in this genre compiled by the renowned physician Sun Simiao (581?-682), I demonstrate the strong practical orientation of his works, which contain miscellaneous, eclectic knowledge of medicine without adhering to theoretical principles. On the one hand, Sun copied a great number of formulas from earlier texts to offer a comprehensive coverage of remedies. On the other, he tried to confirm the efficacy (yan 驗) of some of these formulas based on his medical practice. What is particularly significant is Sun’s incorporation of two dozens of medical cases into his works, a novel phenomenon in the writing of formula books in China. By scrutinizing these cases, I identify Sun’s keen attention to practice, especially his own practice, and his use of it as a central standard to promote his formulas and enhance his reputation. In addition, the paper compares Sun’s formula books to those produced by the court, by scholar-officials, and by local communities, and reveals the vibrant exchange of experience-based knowledge during the Tang. Situating the study of formula books in this broader social and political context, I show how the production and circulation of experience-based knowledge was interwoven with personal aspirations, imperial agendas, and local needs.