A Confluence of Humors Āyurvedic Conceptions of Digestion and the History of Chinese “Phlegm” (tan 痰)

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Natalie Köhle



This article investigates the origin and the earliest, formative period of one of the major concepts in post-classical Chinese medicine, the concept of phlegm, tan 痰. It is the first study that examines both Chinese- and Sanskrit-language sources in seeking to answer the question whether the development of the concept of phlegm in Chinese medicine is owed to Indic influences. Following traditional Chinese scholarship, it argues that the initial emergence of the substance tan 痰, which later was to become “phlegm,” should be understood as an indigenous development from the fluid yin 飲. The subsequent formation and development of the concept of phlegm in Chinese medicine, however, was influenced by Āyurveda. The influence hinges on the coincidence of Indic and Chinese intuitions about digestion.

Previous scholarship on early Chinese Buddhist translations of Indic terms for phlegm and the tridoṣa has either claimed that variations in the terminology betrayed the Chinese translators’ poor understanding of Āyurvedic concepts or that the translators creatively manipulated the terminology with a view to the cultural background of their intended audiences. By contrast, this article argues that the early terminology the Chinese translators crafted was highly accurate and faithful to their Indic source texts. It shows, by going back to the Indic classics, that the variations in Chinese terminology reflect an ancient and long-forgotten temporal shift in the perception of humors in India itself.

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