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Hello all from your new editor, Lloyd. In this month’s blog, Noorie Banu, a Media student at the University of Greenwich, offers us an account of Cinzia Scorzon’s keynote on East Asian conceptions of the body from the 2016 AMH conference, ‘Body Talk: Whose Language?’:

Body Talk: East Asian Perspectives – Noorie Banu

The Body Talk conference brought together medical and healthcare practitioners, academics, and artists to share knowledge, exchange ideas, and identify best practice. One of the broad range of topics covered at the conference was conceptions of the body in East Asian medicine. This topic was explored by Cinzia Scorzon, Senior Lecturer in Life Sciences at the University of Westminster, in her keynote on different cultural perceptions of the body.

Scorzon opened by emphasising how radically heterogeneous conceptions of ‘the body’ have existed across different cultures at different historical moments. For example, in ancient Greek sculpture, a high premium was placed on proportion and beauty in rendering the bodies of gods. However, in ancient Chinese culture, representations of the body were primarily concerned with anatomical detail rather than aesthetics. To illustrate this distinction, Scorzon showed a labelled image of a short, round man, which identified his key acupuncture points. By contrast, in contemporary Western culture, popular conceptions of the body have been shaped by an array of technologies, from X-Rays to MRI scanners, which have rendered visible its inner workings in increasing detail. In each case, Scorzon emphasised, the same physiological unit – the body – has been understood in a distinct and culturally-determined manner.

Scorzon proceeded to offer a genealogy of perceptions of the body in China, starting with an image from the Qin Dynasty in 210 B.C. in which the body was presented as a landscape. She noted how, under the Quin Dynasty, trade and communication were undertaken principally by water, giving streams and rivers a high cultural and political significance. She illustrated how this importance is reflected in the image, in which the circulatory system is figured as a series of waterways. Equally fascinating were examples of images depicting gymnastic exercises, featuring a broad cross-section of Chinese society. We were also shown excerpts from the Mawangdui Manuscripts (168 B.C.), including illustrations of acupuncture points and channels.

Scorzon next addressed 3rd-4th century B.C. Taoist figurations of the body, in which it is depicted as a universe which encompasses all of society. With reference to a series of allegorical images, Scorzon illustrated how different organs depicted as representative of different social functions. Scorzon contrasted this with an image of the ‘Neijing Tu’, which offered an anatomical representation of the nervous system, digestive system, and reproductive organs. Despite resembling a landscape, this image was much more visibly rooted in a desire to render a clinical account of the body.

Turning to the Song Dynasty (960-1127 A.D.), Scorzon shared images of a bronze statue used as a tool for teaching students acupuncture and to assess their knowledge in examinations. She noted that the first representations of the skeleton in Chinese culture are to be found in the 14th century, while the first clinically accurate accounts of skeletal structure appeared in the late 18th century, during the Qing Dynasty.

According to Scorzon, East Asian Medicine, instead of looking at organs as singular, uniform entities, understood them as ‘visceral systems’. Each system had specific influences and functions and was conceived in relation to other neighbouring organs. While concerned with the inner workings of the body, Scorzon noted that ancient Chinese physicians also paid close attention to the appearance of their patients for signs of health. Scorzon offered an amusing example, noting how ‘messy hair was read as a sign of madness’ – a point she illustrated through images of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Abdominal diagnosis was made through observations of temperature, muscle strength, weakness, and resistance. Diagnoses could be made in as little as three minutes – an appointment turn-over rate even Jeremy Hunt would admire.

Intriguingly from a medical humanities perspective, Scorzon emphasised that patients were empowered to choose from a range of treatments, and that a high premium was placed on meeting the needs of each patient as an individual. As Scorzon noted, there thus remains much to be learned from exploring the ways in which the body has been conceived, depicted, and treated in other cultures and other times.

Contact Cinzia

Check out her departmental webpage: