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Chinese Medicine Dolls

For hundreds of years until the early 20th century, getting medical help for a Chinese woman was tricky. In those times the Chinese placed enormous importance to the chastity of a woman (many cultures still do), which meant that a woman couldn’t show too much skin to a male who was other than her husband. This implied trouble as doctors were mostly men, and if a doctor couldn’t get his female patients to undress so that she could be examined, a diagnosis and treatment was impossible. So a solution was devised.

Chinese Medicine Dolls

Photo credit: Wellcome Collection gallery

Many Chinese physicians started keeping in their desks a tiny ivory doll portraying a nude woman in a reclining position. A woman seeking medical attention sat or stood behind a bamboo screen or drapes and extended her hand through a small window in the screen or through the drapes so that the doctor could examine her pulse. The woman then pointed to the areas on the doll where there was discomfort. Based on her indication, her pulse measurement, and whatever little verbal communication the physician could have with his patient, a diagnosis was made and a suitable remedy prescribed.

A typical medicine doll was between 7 and 15 centimeters long. It depicted a woman, unclothed, except for a few items of jewelry, such as bangles and sometimes sandals, lying on her side with one hand supporting her head and the other cupping one of her breast as if trying desperately to cover her modesty. Rarely, a scarf may be draped over her hips.

Chinese Medicine Dolls

Photo credit: Wellcome Collection gallery

Aside from physicians, many upper class women owned these medical dolls themselves. She did not come to see the physician herself, but sent her maid who pointed out on the doll where the trouble lied. Many of these dolls appear to have been custom made with subtle differences in body shape and size so as to represent the
body type of the owner more accurately.

The practice of using medicine dolls probably began in the 15th century during the Ming period and continued until the end of the Qing dynasty in the early years of the 20th century. It’s possible that many small and remote villages beyond the influences of modernity are still using them.

Chinese Medicine Dolls

Photo credit: antiquescientifica.com

Chinese Medicine Dolls

Photo credit: Wellcome Collection gallery

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