Nurturing life through the body, heart, and spirit with the wisdom of Chinese medicine

Nurturing the Feminine

"No culture or family can ever be truly healthy until all of its mothers are respected and nurtured and supported on all levels."

A shrine to the Virgen de Guadalupe in Talpa, New Mexico

A shrine to the Virgen de Guadalupe in Talpa, New Mexico

This topic is perhaps the one area in my research where my personal and professional interests intersect more vividly than anywhere else.

Experiencing my own pregnancy and then giving birth to my daughter is what led me to the study of medieval Chinese gynecology as my dissertation topic many years ago. The more I learn about how classical Chinese medicine cared for and about the female body, the more strongly I feel about the need to share this knowledge with not just Chinese medicine practitioners but also patients and practitioners of other healing arts. I would love for this knowledge to ripple out there to the general public because no culture or family can ever be truly healthy until all of its mothers (in the literal and figurative sense) are respected and nurtured and supported on all levels.

As you can see from the length of this page, I tend to get carried away a bit. I consciously have chosen the broad "nurturing the feminine" as the title for this page, rather than something more traditional like "classical Chinese gynecology," because what Chinese medicine and philosophy have to offer far transcends the medical treatment of gender-specific diseases like menstrual irregularities, obstetrical complications, menopausal hot flashes, or infertility. My thinking on this topic continues to evolve, ever since I first chose to translate Sun Simiao's volumes on gynecology (Bei Ji Qian Jin Yao Fang 備急千金要方 II-IV) for my doctoral dissertation decades ago. As a woman, daughter, mother of a girl who is now on her own road to womanhood, and friend and teacher and student of women from all over the world, I have witnessed countless ways in which women experience their womanhood, with countless stories of powerlessness, abuse, and suffering, balanced only by equally heart-opening stories of beauty, love, empowerment, and healing. Which way you see the scale tip is a matter of perspective and choice.

In popular Western imagination, especially since the arrival of modern feminism, traditional Chinese culture is often judged harshly for its oppression of women.

This situation is associated in particular with Confucianism, which is held responsible for the Chinese system of strict social organization on the basis of a patriarchal and patrilineal hierarchy. The Chinese language is full of traditional sayings like this: "Before marriage, obey your father; after marriage, obey your husband; after the husband's death, obey your son." One commonly expressed notion holds that the woman, being associated with yīn and the earth, is subject to (because physically located below) the man who is associated with yáng and the sky/heaven. Above all, women's lives in historical China are generally seen as defined by their ability to produce male offspring for their husband's family, to ensure the continuation of ancestral sacrifices for the husband's clan. This perspective is often compounded in the popular imagination by details specific to late imperial period, such as evocative, horrifying images of footbinding and gripping accounts of concubinage and female enslavement and infanticide, such as in many mainstream movies or fiction. All this is most certainly worthy of our attention and emotional responses, and discussed in great detail in numerous Women's Studies classes and academic and popular publications.

Nevertheless, the position of women in traditional China, just like in medieval Europe or any other culture, time, or place in the world, is much more complex than the popular image suggests.

Regional, chronological, social, economic, and even personal differences, to name just the most obvious, make it a great challenge to draw meaningful conclusions that do not oversimplify the subject. This complexity is the reason why I am not a Woman's Studies scholar. My personal research focus on the Tang dynasty has led me to look at the position of women in China from a slightly different perspective, suggested perhaps in the slides below.

While women's lives were undoubtedly shaped by the above-mentioned aspects of Chinese culture in general, and societal structure in particular, stories abound from the Tang dynasty also of powerful women. To name just two examples, the two most illustrious ladies are:

  1. Wu Zetian 武則天: the only true empress in China, who founded and successfully ruled her own dynasty from 690-701 CE.
  2. Yang Guifei 楊貴妃: the "Precious Consort Yang," the deeply beloved consort of emperor Xuanzong, one of the most celebrated emperors in the history of China. So enamored was he by this powerful lady that only her death prevented the loss of the dynasty during the An Lushan rebellion of 756 CE.

Similar to the ambiguity suggested by the brief introduction above, it is impossible to summarize the treatment of women's bodies in Chinese medicine in a simple statement. Three excellent books on the topic of women in Chinese medicine are the following:

  1. Charlotte Furth, A Flourishing Yin. Gender in China's Medical History, 960-1665 (University of California Press, 1999)

  2. Yi-Li Wu, Reproducing Women. Medicine, Metaphor, and Childbirth in Late Imperial China (University of California Press, 2010).

  3. Angela Ki Che Leung, ed., Medicine for Women in Imperial China (Brill, 2006).


Focusing on the writings of the great Sun Simiao 孫思邈 in the Bei Ji Qian Jin Yao Fang 備急千金要方 ("Essential Formulas Worth a Thousand in Gold to Prepare for Emergencies") as a key turning point in the history of Chinese gynecology, the following points stand out in his writing:

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1. Women's Health: The Root of Family Health

In the Bei Ji Qian Jin Yao Fang, the treatments for women, comprising roughly ten percent of his entire work, are placed at the very beginning of the text, right after the introduction and before pediatrics and then the bulk of the text on general medicine. This stands in marked contrast to other medical compendiums from classical China, and, one may add, to the historical and modern conventions of Western medicine as well, where information on women's gender-specific care is placed at the very end, often with the explanation that any other disorders in women are to be treated just like those of men and are covered under the general section.

As many historians have stated, in the history of Western medicine this attitude is the logical outcome of the early Greek medical model of a "one-sex body" based on the male as the norm and centering on anatomy rather than of function. As a result, the female body is in this model seen as a deviation from the norm, due to the presence of the uterus, which makes women prone to physical and psychological disorders and weaknesses, most notably "hysteria" (etymologically derived from the Greek word for "uterus"), and consequently often treated by removing the uterus through hysterectomy.

The medical historian Charlotte Furth has contrasted this convincingly with what she has termed the "androgynous" body in Chinese medicine, one that is neither exclusively male nor female and is marked by functional equivalents along a yin-yang continuum. While yin and yang are associated with female and male respectively, they are also affected by a multitude of other correlated pairs, such as old/young, moist/dry, active/passive, blood/essence, earth/heaven, inner/outer, lower/upper, etc. As a result, several medical historians have asserted that classical Chinese medicine before the Song period did not recognize a categorical difference between male and female bodies, a claim supported also by the fact that early specialists in women's care were referred to as dai xia yi 帶下醫 "physician of what is below the girdle." Similarly, the Jin Gui Yao Lüe 金匱要略 asserts: "“Women’s disorders in the upper and middle sections of the body should be treated with general formulas. Only diseases “below the girdle” (i.e., digestive and reproductive conditions) are specific to women and mentioned in the section at end.” An analysis of all relevant literature on women's conditions is obviously beyond the scope of this webpage, so you will have to take my word or do your own research, but my research in the clinical literature of the pre-Song period (most notably formularies and Chao Yuanfang's Zhu Bing Yuan Hou Lun 諸病源侯論 (Treatise on the Origins and Signs of the Various Diseases) leads me to disagree with this view.

But let us return to Sun Simiao to prove my point with perhaps the most obvious example. In my eyes at least, the structure of the Bei Ji Qian Jin Yao Fang as a whole demonstrates Master Sun's attitude to the female body as worthy of special attention and central to the health of the entire family and to the grand project of "nurturing life" more vividly than any written statement could. Whether initiated by Sun Simiao or merely brought to light by him, this appreciation for women's health and the recognition that "nurturing life" extends beyond the sphere of individual cultivation led to the development of gynecology as a full-fledged and greatly respected professional medical specialization with its own literature, celebrated specialists, and imperially-sponsored department of medical training during the Song period (960-1279 CE). There is no doubt in my mind that one reason for this development can be found in Sun Simiao's exposure to and historically documented involvement with Mahayana Buddhism, a set of religious concepts and practices that had been imported from India to China only a few centuries earlier and advocated altruistic practices aimed at relieving the suffering of all sentient beings. Sun Simiao's chapter on medical ethics expresses this view clearly.

2. Ten Times More Difficult to Treat

In direct contradiction to some information found on the internet and taught by self-identified "specialists" in the field of "traditional Chinese medicine" in the West, Sun Simiao did NOT say that he would rather treat ten men that one woman. Far from it! He did say that women were ten times more difficult to treat (比之男子十倍難療) and required separate formulas because of their "difference due to pregnancy, childbirth, and flooding damage." Given their central role for the continuation of the family, "specialists in nurturing life should particularly instruct their sons and daughters to study these three volumes of methods for women until they comprehend them thoroughly. Then what would there be to worry or fear even in the face of a harvest of unexpected surprises?" In other words, Sun states that it is precisely because of women's reproductive functions, their affinity with yīn, the menstrual cycle, and their complicated emotional states that their bodies required extra care and present a greater medical challenge than men's. We can choose to take offense to such an attitude as patronizing and patriarchal, as encoding women's weaknesses and potentially justifying their oppression by men, or appreciate it as an expression of tender care and respect for the challenges experienced by the female body as the result of the burden of childbearing. Regardless of our personal attitude, the fact remains that as due to this attitude, classical Chinese medicine developed highly sophisticated medical tools for the diagnosis and therapy of women's diseases that, in my eyes at least, remain unmatched by any other medical system to this day.

3. Causes of Women's Vulnerability

What were the causes that made women's bodies so much more challenging in the eyes of male medical authors? Sun Simiao answers this question indirectly by offering a surprisingly comprehensive overview in his brief introduction (read the literal translation of the full introduction here!):

  • The initial explanation states in concise terms that women are "different because of pregnancy, childbirth, and flooding damage" (beng 崩, a technical term that refers to flood-like vaginal bleeding, with a character that is etymologically derived from the notion of landslide). I read this short statement as saying plainly that women's bodies differ from men's because they go through pregnancies, give birth, and suffer from profuse vaginal hemorrhages, in the present context most likely referring to heavy bleeding in connection with childbearing, i.e., during pregnancy, birth, and postpartum.
  • Sun then quotes an unidentified classic: "Women are copious accumulations of yīn and are constantly inhabited by dampness." The origin of this statement is unclear but could even derive from a Chinese translation of an Indian medical text.
  • Menstruation is listed as the next factor: "From the age of fourteen on, yin qi floats up and spills over, [causing] a hundred thoughts to pass through her heart. Internally, it damages the five viscera; externally, it injures the outward appearance. The discharge and retention of menstrual fluid is alternatingly early or delayed, stagnant blood lodges and congeals, and the central pathways are interrupted and cut off."
  • Presumably linked to menstruation because of its position in the essay, Master Sun now presents a long and varied list of etiological factors: incomplete digestion, an imbalance of xu 虛 (emptiness, vacuity, deficiency) and shi 實 (fullness, repletion, excess) in the five zang organs, internal leaking of pathogenic blood, injury to the flow of qi in the vessels, irregular diet, sexual intercourse with unhealed vaginal sores, and wind entering the body from outside during a visit to the outhouse.  The list concludes with the statement that these are the reasons why special treatments have been established for women.
  • After confirming that any other conditions in women are to be treated exactly the same as in men, with the exception of avoiding toxic medicinals during pregnancy, Sun Simiao concludes this discussion with a fascinating comment: "Nevertheless, women’s predilections and desires exceed those of men and they contract diseases at twice the rate of men. In addition, when they are affected by compassion and attachment, love and hatred, envy and jealousy, and worry and rancor, these become firmly lodged and deep-seated. Since they are unable to control their emotions by themselves, the roots of their diseases are deep and it is difficult to obtain a cure in their treatment."

4. Gender-Specific Treatments

For obvious physiological and cultural reasons, the medical care of the female body has in most cultures and times focused on women's reproductive functions, by preparing for pregnancy with fertility treatments, by ensuring a healthy pregnancy to provide the environment for ideal fetal development, and by managing a smooth labor and delivery. In most traditional medical systems, including Chinese medicine, postpartum recovery has also received considerable attention. This is one area where the contrast to current biomedical attitudes and practices could not be starker, especially when we also include recovery after abortions and miscarriages in this category, as has traditionally been done in China and most other cultures. In my opinion, postpartum care is a key area of gynecological practice where Chinese medicine offers the a huge potential for real contributions to patients' well-being in the West, simply because biomedicine has so woefully little to say or do for women during this fragile time. According to Chinese medicine theory, the results of inadequate postpartum care will affect a woman for the rest of her life.


In all cases, it is not only during delivery that women must worry. When they arrive at the postpartum stage, they must exercise particular caution. This is where the greatest threat to their lives is found. Do not leave them without company at the time of delivery. Otherwise they might act without restraint and follow their whims, in which case they are bound to violate the prohibitions. At the time of the violation, it might be as tiny as autumn down. But the contracted illness will be larger than Mount Song or Dai. Why?... After women have completed delivery, their five organs suffer from vacuity emaciation. You may only use supporting and supplementing treatments and must not use transforming and draining treatments. In cases of illness, you must not prepare “galloping medicines.” If you employ galloping medicines, [the illness] will shift into one of even greater vacuity, resulting in her center becoming even more vacuous. You are thus distancing her from the path towards life.
— Sun Simiao, Bei Ji Qian Jin Yao Fang III.1

The other two areas of gynecology in which I see the greatest potential for Chinese medicine practitioners are

  1. "Menstrual attunement" (yue tiao 月調)
  2. Fertility and pregnancy care, far beyond a successful conception.

The subject of creating and then nurturing the fetus (yang tai 養胎) deserves its own page, which will be created for this website sooner rather than later. Suffice it to say here, the focus in classical Chinese medicine not on treating disease but on preventing it -- and hence on continuously fine-tuning the fluid and ever-changing equilibrium that is the defining characteristic of the human body in all its manifestations,-- has led to the accumulation of millennia of wisdom and clinical expertise on how to maximize health and minimize pathogenic influences. As such, any expert practitioner of this art should be eminently capable of bringing the female body into a state of optimal health, with dramatic results in the area of fertility. Whether in preparation for or assistance to biomedical treatments, or as an effective treatment in its own right, fertility is an area of practice that is bound to grow rapidly in the next few decades.

The Chinese medical view of menstruation as an essential function of the female body and a sign of cyclical health, balance, and abundance can serve as an effective counterweight to the negative associations with female blood in our modern popular culture, which depicts menstruation as dirty, shameful, debilitating, as something that must be hidden or even avoided as much as possible. By contrast, Chinese medicine views female blood from different angles.

  • It nurtures the fetus during pregnancy
  • After the child is born, the blood transforms into breast milk, in which form it continues to feed the baby.
  • Immediately after childbirth, uterine bleeding is also essential for eliminating stale blood and highly pathogenic residual substances (e lu 惡露 "malign dew") from the uterus by flushing and cleansing it.
  • It's cyclical appearance in accordance with the cycles of the moon in a healthy, free flow with the right color, consistency, timing, duration, and accompanying signs symbolizes abundance, balance (especially between blood and qi), absence of blockage, and harmony with cosmic cycles.
  • Any pathologies surrounding menstruation are evocative and illuminating windows into ever more subtle layers of otherwise hidden processes within the female body that can be addressed effectively by means of "attuning the menses."

“The Reason for infertility [Lit: “no children”] is always that the menstrual fluids are not attuned.
This is due to internal damage from the seven emotions or to external contraction of the six pernicious influences.
Or possibly to a one-sided overabundance of blood or qi, or to yin and yang overwhelming each other.
To treat this, attune the menses...
If the menses are attuned, either the woman is too fat or too skinny....
— Chen Xiuyuan (1753-1823), Nü Ke Yao Zhi 女科要指 ("Gist of Gynecology")

An illustration of the tenth month of pregnancy found in the Ishimpo 醫心方 (tenth century CE)

An illustration of the tenth month of pregnancy found in the Ishimpo 醫心方 (tenth century CE)

  • To read the full text of the introduction to Sun Simiao's three volumes on gynecology in the Bei Ji Qian Jin Yao Fang, see here.

  • For more information on Sun Simiao and the Bei Ji Qian Jin Yao Fang, see the page on Sun Simiao on this website.

  • You can also find more articles published by me on this topic in my List of Publications.

  • For more information on nurturing the fetus, see my chapter “Worth a Thousand in Gold: The Quest for Perfect Children in Early China.” in Andreas Noll and Sabine Wilms eds., Chinese Medicine in Fertility Disorders (Thieme International, 2010) and my article “The Transmission of Medical Knowledge on ‘Nurturing the Fetus’ in Early China” in Asian Medicine: Tradition and Modernity 2, 2005.

  • For a rare chance to listen in on a conversation between myself, Debra Betts and Laurie Regan, visit Laurie's show on "Ancient Wisdom Can Deliver a Healthy, Happy Pregnancy" here.

  • For more information on menstruation, see in particular my article “The Art and Science of Menstrual Balancing in Medieval China” in Andrew Shail and Gillian Howie, eds., Menstruation: A Cultural History (Palgrave, 2005), or in German, “Die Kunst der ‘Regulierung der Menstruation’ im frühmittelalterlichen China” in Chinesische Medizin (2010 issue).


I conclude this brief (but already too long for a website) overview with a selection of the most relevant quotations from the early medical classics in roughly chronological order, to let the texts speak for themselves.

The womb is an animal which longs to generate children. When it remains barren too long after puberty, it is distressed and sorely disturbed, and straying about in the body and cutting off the passages of the breath, it impedes respiration and brings the sufferer into the extremist anguish and provokes all manner of diseases besides.
— Plato
Everything embodies yin and embraces yang. Through blending their Qi, they attain harmony.
— Laozi 老子, Dao De Jing 道德經
岐伯曰:女子七歲,腎氣盛,齒更髮長。二七而天癸至,任脈通,太衝脈盛,月事以時下,故有子。三七,腎氣平均,故真牙生而長極。四七,筋骨堅,髮長極,身體盛壯。五七,陽明脈衰,面始焦,髮始墮。六七,三陽脈衰於上,面皆焦,髮始白。七七,任脈虛,太衝脈衰少,天癸竭,地道不通,故形壞而無子也。
Qíbó said: When girls are in their seventh year of life, their kidney qi is exuberant and their teeth change and the hair on their head grows long. In their fourteenth year, the tiān guǐ arrives, the flow in the Rènmài penetrates, the great Chōngmài is exuberant, and the menses descend in a timely manner. Therefore they can have children. In their twenty-first year, the kidney qi is balanced and even. Therefore the true [i.e., wisdom] teeth are born and growth reaches its limit. In their twenty-eighth year, the sinews and bones are firm, the growth of head hair has reached its limit, and the body is exuberant and strong. In their thirty-fifth year, the Yángmíng vessel weakens, the face becomes scorched, and the hair begins to fall out. In their forty-second year, the three yang vessels weaken above, the face is scorched all over, and the head hear begins to turn white. In their forty-ninth year, the Rènmài is empty (xū), the great Chōngmài is weakened and reduced, the tiān guǐ is exhausted, and the Dào of the earth is impenetrable. Therefore their physical body has gone bad and they can no longer have children.
— Huang Di Nei Jing 黃帝內經, Su Wen 素問
婦人之病,因虛積冷結氣,為諸經水斷絕,至有歷年,血寒積結胞門,寒傷經絡凝堅。在上嘔吐涎唾,久成肺癰形體損分。在中盤結,繞臍寒疝;或兩脅疼痛,與臟相連;或結熱中,痛在關元,脈數無瘡,肌若魚鱗,時著男子,非止女身。在下未多,經候不匀,令陰掣痛,少腹惡寒;或引腰脊,下根氣街,氣衝急痛,膝 脛疼煩,奄忽眩冒,狀如厥癲;或有憂慘,悲傷多嗔,此皆帶下,非有鬼神。
Women’s diseases are caused by emptiness (xū), accumulated cold, and bound qi, which cause all the menstrual water to be cut off. If this continues for a number of years, blood and cold accumulate and bind in the mouth of the uterus, and cold damages the channels and network vessels, so that they become congealed and hard. In the upper [body], [this results in] retching and vomiting of drool and spittle. Over time, lung welling-abscesses form and the physical body is reduced and separated. In the middle [of the body], [the result is] coiling binds and cold mounting [causing pain] around the umbilicus, possibly with pain in both rib-sides linked to the viscera, possibly with binding heat in the center, pain at Guān Yuán, rapid pulses but no sores, and flesh that resembles fish scales. [These diseases can also] sometimes affect males and are not limited to the female body. In the lower [body], [the result is] copious foam, uneven menses that cause tugging pain in the genitals, and aversion to cold in the lesser abdomen, possibly tension and pain that reaches into the lumbar spine and is rooted below in Qì Jiē and Qì Chōng, vexing pain in the knees and lower legs, sudden dizzy veiling that resembles [clouding] reversal or [mania and] withdrawal, and possibly anxiety, sorrow, and irascibility. [These signs are] all [attributable to] disease below the girdle; they do not indicate the presence of ghosts and spirits.
— Zhang Zhongjing 張仲景, Jin Gui Yao Lüe 金匱要略
婦人之別有方者,以其胎妊, 生產,崩傷之變也。
是以婦人之病,比之男子十倍難療。
The reason why separate formulas exist for women is the transformations [caused by] pregnancy, childbirth, and collapse damage (i.e. strong vaginal bleeding). For this reason, women’s diseases are then times more difficult to cure than men’s.
— Sun Simiao 孫思邈, Bei Ji Qian Jin Yao Fang 備急千金要方 II.1 (introduction to gynecology)
故今斯方﹐先婦人、小兒﹐而後丈夫、耆老者﹐則是崇本之義也。
Now the present collection of treatments is arranged by placing the treatments for women and children first, and those for husbands and the elderly afterwards. The significance of this structure is that it venerates the root.
— Sun Simiao 孫思邈: Bei Ji Qian Jin Yao Fang 備急千金要方 V.1 (introduction to pediatrics)
(一)男子以精為本,女子以血為源。
(二)男子為陽,陽中必有陰,陰中之數八,故一八而陽精降,二八而陽精溢。
(三)女子為陰,陰中必有陽,陽中之數七,故一七而陰血升,二七而陰血溢。
1) Men have essence as their root, while women have blood as their source.
2) Men are yáng. Within yáng, there must always be yīn. Eight is a number from within yīn. Therefore, yáng essence descends at the age of one times eight, and yáng essence spills over at the age of two times eight.
3) Women are yīn, and there must always be yáng within yīn. Seven is a number from within yáng. Therefore yīn blood rises at the age of one times seven, and yīn blood spills over at the age of two times seven.
— Nü Ke Bai Wen 女科百問 (Qí Zhòngfǔ 齊仲甫, 1220 CE), Question 1: 精血以分男女之本源何也? Why Do We Take Essence and Blood As the Source for Differentiating Between Men and Women?
(一)夫女子十四天癸至,腎氣全盛,沖流任通,血漸盈,應時而下,常以三旬一見,愆期者病,故謂之經候。
(二)然經者,常也。候者,謂候一身之陰陽也。經常之氣,伺候而至,若潮候之應乎時也。
(三)天真之氣,與之流通,故一月一次行。平和則不失乎期,所以謂之經候,又名月水也。
1) Now in girls at the age of fourteen [suì], the tiān guǐ arrives, the kidney qì is complete and exuberant, the Chōngmài flows and the Rènmài penetrates, and the blood gradually fills up. At the appropriate time, it descends, normally appearing once every three cycles of ten days. If it passes beyond this fixed period, it indicates a pathology. Therefore it is called “menstrual period.”
2) The character jīng 經 means constancy. The character hòu 候 means awaiting, it is a reference to awaiting yīn and yáng in the entire body. The regular and constant qì awaits [its proper timing] and then arrives, similar to the way in which the tides wait to correspond to their time.
3) The qì of true Heaven flows in communication with it. Therefore [the menses] flow once a month. If [the body] is in a state of balance and harmony, it does not lose its proper timing, and for this reason we refer to it as menstrual period (Lit., “constant waiting”). It is also called “monthly fluids.”
— Nü Ke Bai Wen 女科百問 (Qí Zhòngfǔ 齊仲甫, 1220 CE): Question 5: 何以謂之經候? What Is It That We Refer to As “Menstrual Period”?

"No culture or family can ever be truly healthy until all of its mothers (in the literal and figurative sense) are respected and nurtured and supported on all levels."

Our beautiful mama goose Esmeralda, sitting on her eggs. Thanks to Laura Shields for the photo.

Our beautiful mama goose Esmeralda, sitting on her eggs. Thanks to Laura Shields for the photo.