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How a wealthy family in 18th-century China fought smallpox: The view from a novel

qing_fans.jpg I've been reading The Story of the Stone, the great 18th century Chinese novel, which is much more accessible to my 21st-century Western mind than I expected. It's shaping up as a magnificent soap opera about an aristocratic family, complete with love, death, poetry, squabbles -- and the occasional family health crisis.

Comparing the attitudes and beliefs about medicine from then and now is fascinating.

Here's what happens after a child is diagnosed with smallpox:

Xi-feng [the child's mother] immediately became very busy. A room had to be swept out and prepared for the worship of the Smallpox Goddess. Orders had to be given to the servants to avoid the use of all fried and sauteed cookery. Patience [a servant] had to be told to move Jia Lian's [the child's father's] clothes and bedding to a room outside -- for sexual abstinence, too, was enjoined on the parents of the sufferer. A length of dark-red cloth had to be procured and made up into a dress for the child by the combined labours of the nurses, maids and female relations most closely associated with it. Finally, a ritually purified room had to be made ready for the two doctors who would take it in turns to examine the little patient and make up her medicines, and who would not be permitted to return to their own homes until the customary period of twelve days had elapsed.

The novel is believed to be based on the family saga of the author, Cao Xueqin, so it's not unreasonable to assume these practices reflect the reality of that time. Does modern medicine have anything to learn from them? I wonder if some of the actions that seem to me purely ritualistic, such as avoiding fried foods as a family, really serve useful medical purposes.

Photo by mharrsch

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