CCHH: China Centre For Health And Humanity


Dr Nancy Holroyde-Downing

Tongues on fire: on the origins and transmission of a system of tongue diagnosis

My PhD, Tongues on Fire: On the Origins and Transmission of a System of Tongue Diagnosis, investigates the circumstances that gave rise to tongue inspection becoming a pervasive element of diagnosis in Chinese traditional medicine.

Nancy Holroyde-Downing.jpg

Although a systematised and illustrated text on tongue diagnosis was available from at least the 14th century, case records of renowned physicians working as recently as the 19th century appear to make little use of it. My research examines the relationship of tongue diagnosis to the periods of epidemic disease which ravaged southern China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE), and explores the possibility that its emergence as a regional discipline among Southern Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) authors is related to the fact that febrile illness is reflected in rapid changes in the quality of the tongue.

Tongue image
Additionally, I explore developments in the late Qing and early Republican period, during which time the gaze of the new 'scientific' medicine from the west resonated in the innovation of anatomically correct tongue illustrations in medical texts. Unlike the art of pulse diagnosis, the tongue is objective and observable. I will examine how this fact made tongue diagnosis amenable to both biomedicine and the institutional structures of the new Academies of Traditional Medicine being established in the People's Republic.

Having been a practitioner of Chinese traditional medicine for the past 20 years, I am also interested in the relevance of the historical development of diagnostic techniques to contemporary practice - in particular, the ways in which authors of 'new' diagnostic methods within a traditional medicine are in constant dialogue with the theories articulated in classical texts.