Specimen Medicinae Sinicae...

Cover image of Specimen Medicinae Sinicae that links back to book reader view

The Specimen Medicinae Sinicae, compiled by a German physician from Kassel, is the first illustrated book published on Chinese medicine in the West. It contains an overview of Chinese medical practices including acupuncture and meridian theories, semiology of the tongue, descriptions of Chinese pharmaceuticals and their uses, and an important translation of a Ming treatise on pulse diagnosis.

Image of page 69 from <em>Specimen Medicinae Sinicae</em> that links to page 69 in book reader view

The authorship of this work is controversial. Andreas Cleyer, German surgeon general of the Dutch East India Company in Batavia (now Jakarta) from 1665 to 1697 is credited on the title page. Cleyer was certainly the editor, but existing scholarship has demonstrated that much of the text appears to be the work of the Jesuit missionary Michael Boym (ca. 1612-1659). In 1654 Boym, a polymathic scholar from Poland who had collected Chinese medical texts since at least 1643, had placed a publication called the Medicus sinicus with a Parisian publisher. Philippe Couplet, a fellow Jesuit and friend of Boym's sent Boym's manuscripts to Batavia in 1656, while Boym travelled to China, in order to safely convey them from China back to Europe. Boym died unexpectedly in 1659.

Boym's translation of the Ming text fell into Cleyer's hands. He asked Couplet to obtain other Chinese sources. From these materials, and possibly with the assistance of Couplet, Cleyer published two texts: the 1680 Clavis medica ad Chinarum…(Key to the Medical Doctrine of the Chinese on the Pulse), and in 1682, this book. Both contained Boym's texts and translations, as well as work by the Dutch physician Ten Rhijne (1647-1700).

The Specimen Medicinae Sinicae includes thirty engraved plates and woodcut illustrations in the text, depicting the Chinese doctrine of the pulse and the semiology of the tongue, along with eight tables showing the variations of the pulses. Explaining Chinese pulse theory to a European audience proved difficult. Cleyer's sources related pulse activity to the flow of qi (the life force) through various channels, or meridians. In Chinese philosophy, the body was comprised of zang ("storage facilities") and fu ("palaces"). These places were reached through the twelve meridians, pathways for qi (the life force), and central to Chinese teachings on acupuncture. Though Cleyer called these viis (ways), conveying the idea rather elegantly, he also described the meridians as anatomical. Insufficient description of the plates, which pictured figures with doubled lines running through the bodies, confused western audiences, who interpreted these representations as indication that the Chinese didn't know their anatomy. The publication of the Specimen Medicinae Sinicae did little to change the commonly-held belief that the Chinese were crackerjack diagnosticians, with a misguided idea of the body's interior.

The Chinese "yin" and "yang" proved equally difficult to translate, and were cast into a humoral framework, as "vital Heat" and "radical moisture.” As a result, the tenets of Chinese medicine and diagnostics were also somewhat muddled in the minds of westerners. Nevertheless, the translation and dissemination of the Ming text and other classics of Chinese medicine did much to introduce pulse lore, acupuncture, and new materia medica to a Western audience of medical practitioners eager to experiment and to open up new avenues for treatment and research.

Boym, Michel, et al. Specimen Medicinae Sinicae... Frankfurt am Main, 1682.

Photography by Ardon Bar-Hama courtesy of George Blumenthal.