Asian medicines, the art of balance

Guided tour of the exhibition at MNNA-Guimet by Katia Thomas, Lecturer, Specialist in the civilizations of India and the Himalayan world.

For more than ten years, Asian medicines have been fashionable in the West. Called "alternative medicine" or "soft medicine", they are only too rarely approached in a global way. The exhibition Asian medicines, the art of balance of the Guimet Museum offers the general public the possibility of a first approach to the three great medicinal traditions of China, India and Tibet. Thus, more than 300 works of art – paintings, art objects, sculptures, or even clothing – bear witness to the way in which artists in Asia have taken up the theme of medicine over the centuries.

The mchinese medicine

 The exhibition begins with a presentation of the main principles of Chinese medicine. A Japanese document representing a map of the human body illustrates the different meridians, called "channels" in ancient Chinese texts. The latter underline the importance of these flows; indeed, in oriental medicine, it is fundamental to succeed in keeping one's body in balance, the lack of harmony actually causing illness to appear. In Asia, disease is considered part of the biological reality of the human body, resulting from disturbances related to energy fluctuations Qi in the canals.

Among the important figures in the history of Chinese medicine is the Yellow Emperor, considered the author of the first great treatise on medicine in the Chinese world. Historically, this work is the result of texts compiled around the 2rd or 1er century before our era. The vision of medicine, from its beginnings, is not only “scientific”; indeed, we are not only talking about the biological reality of the body. The spirit world or the relationship with the ancestors – in short, with the invisible world – would partly explain illnesses.
Another important figure in China is Shennong. Also a mythological figure, he would have tasted more than 70 plants in one day, and would then have classified them in a book. He is credited with a treatise on herbal medicine written under the Eastern Han (25-220) and some of these plants are still used in Chinese pharmacopoeia.
To complete this idea of ​​circulation of flows in the body, a painting represents a map of the inner landscape describing the human body according to Taoist alchemy through landscapes, in the taste of scholars. Indeed, in Chinese thought, the approach to medicine is inseparable from the relationship with nature, with the changing seasons, the constellations, etc. For example, yin and yang are the representation of two slopes of the same valley, one being located in the shade, and the other, exposed to the sun.

Diagram of the meridians of the human body. Japan. 19th c. Ink and colors on paper.

The Yellow Emperor (Huangdi Xuanyuanshi). China. Qing Dynasty. 17th c. Porcelain.

Neijing tu (inner landscape map) describing the human body according to Taoist alchemy. China. Taiwan. 19th -20th c. Ink on paper.

Sun Simiao, Taoist physician and alchemist. China. Hunan Province. Qing Dynasty. 19th c. Gilded and painted wood.

From the beginning of its conception, the objective of Chinese medicine is to achieve immortality. Today there is a different relationship to these medicines, the objective of which is personal well-being and health. Originally, however, it is above all a question of going beyond our mortal human condition by means of these medicines. This concept is also very present in Indian civilization, where the termayurveda, which means “the science of full life”, implies this search for longevity.

Under the Tang dynasty (618-907), the central power began to organize training places for doctors, who became civil servants, placed under the aegis of the emperor. Specializations also appear (remedies, moxibustion or even acupuncture).

Tibetan medicine

Essentially inspired by Indian medicine, Tibetan medicine also incorporates Chinese contributions as well as traditions from the Byzantine and Persian worlds. A relatively unknown medicine, it developed in a second phase compared to China and India.
Tibetan texts tell that the most important emperor in the history of Tibet, Yuthog Yonten Gonpo (7rd  century) would have invited to his court a Chinese doctor, an Indian doctor and a certain Gallenos (probably in reference to Gallien); this story reflects this mixture of traditions integrated into Tibetan medicine.
The religious aspect of Tibetan medicine is illustrated by the presentation of Guru Rinpoche, considered in the Tibetan context as a second Buddha, who came to Tibet to spread Buddhist teachings. He would have hidden texts which, while waiting for humanity to be ready to understand them, were entrusted to the 12rd century to Yuthog Yonten Gonpo The Younger. This character would have compiled several great medical notions in the form of a great treatise on medicine divided into four parts. He is represented on a tempera on canvas with the attributes, on the left, a book, symbol of knowledge, and a sword, which cuts ignorance and, on the right, is the vase of medicinal liquor flanked by a vajra, symbol of purity and indestructibility.

Yuthog Yonten Gompo. Tibet. End of the 19th century. Distemper on canvas.

Padmasambhava and the Eight Medicine Buddhas – Orgyen Menla. Exact provenance unknown. 18th c. Bronze.

Purusha. Nepal. 1806. Distemper on canvas.

It is interesting to remember that, from a historical point of view, we do not know the impact of this scholarly medicine on the local populations. The latter will, as in China, seek answers more in the field of ritual or religion (recitation of prayers, mantras, offerings, pilgrimages, etc.) in the face of illness.
A painting from Nepal depicts Purusha, materializing the link between the microcosm of the human body and the macrocosm of the universe. It illustrates, beyond the mythological aspects, the different energetic bodies, called the chakra (“rounds” in Sanskrit) which are sorts of small energy engines. This work, which is a visual support, illustrates the objective of gradually raising the energy of a chakra to another. It also makes it possible to understand that the idea of ​​the physical body containing an energy flow is common to the whole of the Asian continent.

Indian medicine

 Ayurveda are texts that date back to the 1er - 2rd centuries of our era. The most important of these texts, which summarizes the main ideas, dates from the 8rd century and was translated into Tibetan. From the beginning, deities were associated with the three main humors of the human body with the aim of guaranteeing balance, but also of achieving immortality. Thus, the god Vayu is associated with the wind, the air, and therefore with the idea of ​​​​movement and the nervous system. Varuna is associated with water and the proper circulation of all bodily fluids. Agni, meanwhile, is the god of fire, and helps regulate the digestive system.
The myth of churning the sea of ​​milk tells that gods and demons, Asura and should, fight for immortality. Vishnu then takes the form of a turtle to serve as a support for the axis of the world. Following the churning of the sea of ​​milk, the elixir of immortality comes out of a pot held by Dhanvantari who will become the god of doctors in a Hindu context. Similarly, the cow that watches over the ocean echoes the later importance of butter Ghee, which will be used for Ayurvedic massage and in which a whole set of plants will be infused.

Vayu. India. Tamil Nadu. Srirangam. 18th c. Chariot wood.

Agni. India. Tamil Nadu. Kumbakonam. 17th-18th c. Chariot wood.

The seven chakras of the subtle body. India. State of Punjab. Late 19th century. Ink and color on paper.

Yaoshi rulai (Baishajyaguru, "the Master of Remedies"). Detail. China. Gansu. Dunhuang. Tang dynasty. Second half of the 9th c. Colors on silk.

Iconography of deities related to disease and healing

In traditional Asian medicine, religion and medicine are not separated. When you are sick, doing prayers and rituals can be as effective as eating a plant, for example.
Among the deities related to the field of medicine, one of the most important is the Medicine Buddha, Bhaishajyaguru, whose exhibition presents a Japanese statue. The literal translation of his name in Sanskrit is “Master of Remedies”. Its attribute is a container, symbol of the remedies whose knowledge it transmits. His cult would have its origin in Central Asia, before gaining importance in Japan and Tibet. The Tibetan treatise on medicine is the teaching of this Buddha. It takes the form of a dialogue between two of its emanations which ask questions and answer them. Wherever Buddhism is present in Asia, it is the religion that presents the Buddha as the physician par excellence. Indeed, his teaching must allow everyone to get out of suffering after he himself has faced a sick person during one of his Four Outings.

Baishajyaguru, "the Master of Remedies". North China. Qing Dynasty. 18th-19th c. Golden brass.

Yakushi-nyorai (Baishajyaguru, "the Master of Remedies"). Detail. Japan. 18th-19th c. Lacquered, gilded and painted wood.

Portrait of King Jayavarman VII. Cambodia. Angkor. Ta Prohm. Late 12th c.-early 13th c. Sandstone.

Moreover, there are few known examples in Asia of a sovereign who would have organized hospitals in a state manner. This is however the case of Jayavarman VII who, at the end of the 12rd  century and early 13rd  century, set up a system of hospitals of which all that remains in Cambodia are the parts built of stone, small sanctuary towers serving as chapels. All the outbuildings, built of wood, have now disappeared.

 The mmethods of care and diagnosis

This section includes representations of doctors as well as an exceptional work, a scroll of faciomancy illustrated with different faces. It testifies to the prediction by the patient's complexion as a diagnosis. The doctor observes the distribution of the elements and shapes of the face, as well as the postures. Then comes the consultation of the pulse. In some contexts, notably Tibetan and Indian, urine analysis (smell, color) is also part of this diagnosis.

Acupuncture and moxibustion

Once the diagnosis has been made, there are different means and tools to treat the disease, such as acupuncture. The latter consists of stimulating twelve points on the channels, representing the twelve main organs, and in which tiny needles will be inserted. At 17rd  century, to pass the exams to be a doctor specializing in the practice of acupuncture, the student had to practice on mannequins covered with wax. Containers filled with water were placed under the wax; if the student aims at the right point, he makes water flow. If the water does not come out, it is a failure.
Moxibustion, on the other hand, stimulates the points with heat, using rolled up dried mugwort leaves. The rollers, called moxas, were formerly placed on the point until burning the skin, on which ointments are then applied. Today, the points are heated using small pellets comprising a small rod.

Faciomancy treatise. Detail. China. Gansu Province. Dunhuang. Five Dynasties period, around 950. Ink on paper.

Acupuncture dummy. China. Qing Dynasty. 18th c. Paper, cardboard, lacquered and painted.

Japanese doctor taking a patient's pulse. Japan. Second half of the 19th century. Modern print from an original albumen on paper.


The Asian pharmacopoeia is composed of many plants, but also, for Chinese medicine in particular, of a certain number of animal substances. The rhinoceros horn, supposedly necessary for the reinforcement of male virility, is among the best known. In each traditional medicine, a particular plant will serve as a panacea, as it carries many benefits; it is turmeric in India or ginseng in the Far East. The mushroom of longevity (Lingshi ou reishi, Ganoderma lucidum), an excellent antioxidant, it is most often consumed in powder form. An auspicious motif, it is represented in various forms, including a jade scepter. Gift made between scholars, it follows the very shape of the mushroom.

Ayurvedic massage

Before undergoing an Ayurvedic cure, the patient ingests plants that trigger diarrhea and vomiting, with the aim of purging himself. During the massage, which is performed vigorously, the person must restrain himself from vomiting and going to the toilet, concentrating on the idea that the source of the evil is concentrated in the stomach, hence the idea of purge.

Yoga and meditation

By presenting a space dedicated to meditation and yoga, the exhibition also encompasses the notion of mental well-being. However, the breaths of yoga or the practice of meditation do not originate from this search for personal well-being. The latter has developed in the West and in a contemporary way. The primary objective of these practices is, once again, to achieve immortality, to walk towards moksha, the road to liberation in India.

Water pan for moistening ink, in the shape of two lingzhi. China. Qing Dynasty. 18th c. Chalcedony, carnelian.

Yoga poses. Detail. India. Andhra Pradesh or Tamil Nadu. Around 1820. Gouache on paper.

Janggu drum. Korea. Circa 1974. Painted wood, organic membrane, textile.

Shamanism and exorcism

 In Asia, there is a belief that illness sometimes comes from outside, caused by an ancestor or a disgruntled spirit. There are then two types of relationship with these spirit ancestors: the shamanic context and the possession context.
In Korea, shamans, who are often women, use the beats of a drum to enter a trance and rhythm their movements. If a person is sick, it would mean that he is the cause of a harmful action towards the spirits of nature, which, by making the person sick, have taken part of his energy outside his body. in their world. It is then necessary to consult a shaman, who will travel to this dimension to recover this stolen piece. He then recounts what he saw in the spirit world to explain the causes of the disease.

Mahakola Sanni Yaka mask. Sri Lanka. 19th c. Painted wood, hair.

Talismanic shirt. North India. Sultanate period. 15th-16th c. Cotton canvas painted with reed pen, gold.

In Sri Lanka, a traditional ceremony linked to exorcism is now experiencing a certain revival. It consists of placing the mask of Mahakola, master and instigator of diseases, near the suffering patient. Indeed, in Sri Lanka, 18 demons would be at the origin of different diseases. The king of these demons is represented with sharp teeth, and carrying 2 bodies of human beings in his hands, while he is already digesting another. The very theatrical side of the object participates fully in the effectiveness of the ritual. His bulging eyes remind us that the demon would enter the body through the gaze. Throughout the night, masks representing the 18 demons will parade in front of the patient; if he reacts to one of the masks, the demon responsible for his illness will be identified. Several dances follow, to dialogue with the demon, to make fun of him and finally to fight him and thus put an end to the disease of the person concerned.

 protective clothing

Shown to the public for the first time, a talismanic shirt from North India, worn next to the skin, is adorned with the names of Allah and surahs from the Koran in calligraphy to protect against disease and death.

East and West, the dialogue of opposites

Finally, several works illustrate how the first Westerners became interested in traditional Asian techniques. Conversely, a Japanese scroll from 1942 bears witness to the way Asians were also curious about Western medicine. It represents the observation of the organs of the body of a victim; this approach is particularly present in Western medicine, but not in ancient Asian medicine. This is the meeting


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