School of History and Philosophy of Science


[The University of Sydney]


 Toward a Connected History of Chinese Medicine: The Case of Phlegm

Natalie Koehle (USyd)

Dates: Monday, 29/5/2023
Time: 5:00pm
Venue: F23, Michael Spence Building, Level 5, Room 501
How to register: Free, no registration required
Zoom Link:<>

Abstract: Phlegm (tan 痰) figures as a major cause and consequence of disease in 
late imperial Chinese medicine. Curiously, however, when we go back to the 
classics, the very notion of phlegm is entirely absent. The rise of phlegm 
represents one of the fundamental transformations in the history of Chinese 
medicine. In this presentation, I argue that a little-known chapter on phlegm 
in Wang Gui’s 王珪 (1264–1354) On the Art of Nourishing Life (1338), notable for 
discussing a host of unprecedented practices and concepts in Chinese phlegm 
theory, was pivotal for this transformation. I draw attention to a strong 
resemblance with Galenic medical theories and argue that this resemblance was 
the result of a hitherto overlooked knowledge transmission, that is the 
transmission of Galenic medical ideas to pre-modern China.

I show that, although at first sight, the work seems to be composed entirely 
within the framework of traditional Chinese medicine, it is actually a 
translation: Its author, Wang Gui, has rearranged existing emic notions and 
concepts and put them to work to ‘translate’ some of the core theories of 
Galenic medicine into a Chinese medical framework. I then go on to situate On 
the Art of Nourishing Life in the context of the corpus of earlier and later 
works in Chinese medicine and discuss the ways in which it promoted the rise of 
phlegm in Chinese medical theory, and how this rise, in turn, spurred major 
transformations in the understanding of sickness in China.

Bio: Natalie Koehle is a lecturer in History and Philosophy of Science at 
Sydney University. She researches the history of Chinese medicine, and has 
comparative interests in the history of Indian, Tibetan, and medieval 
Greco-Islamic medical traditions. She works on two book projects: one on the 
longue durée history of Donkey Hide Gelatin (ejiao 阿膠), and one on the global 
history of Chinese phlegm (tan 痰). Natalie received her PhD from the Department 
of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University and has held 
previous appointments at the Australian National University and Hong Kong 
Baptist University. Her publications include an experimental edited volume, 
Fluid Matter(s): A Cross-cultural Examination of the Imagination of the Humoral 
Body (ANU Press, 2020), which explores the use of interactive, image-based 
storytelling for academic communication, and “The Many Colors of Excrement: 
Galen and the History of Chinese Phlegm,” forthcoming with the Bulletin of the 
History of Medicine.

Link to Zoom<>


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