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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Li Tang's 李唐 Moxibustion : the spectacle of pain, the supernatural, and the supramundane Luce, Davin


Medical representations in non-didactic formats are relatively rare in Song dynasty China (960-1279 CE). Moxibustion, attributed to the Song dynasty painter Li Tang 李唐 (c. 1050-1130), is one of these rare examples. The painting depicts the traditional medical treatment, moxibustion, where an herb known as mugwort is burned on various points of the body to alleviate illness. In the painting, the patient of the treatment is shown with an extreme expression of pain on his face. While scholarship on the painting tends to focus on its sense of realism, its attribution and date, or its function to promote good governmental policies, I reframe the discussion around notions of emotional expression, and more specifically the representation of pain. In the specific context of Moxibustion, I ask what the representation of pain might signify in the Song dynasty, as well as expand the temporal framing of the work into the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). To avoid anachronism, I utilize art historian Reiko Tomii’s notion of ‘resonances’ that suggests similarities can be retrospectively acknowledged even when few direct connections exist. In Chapter One, I argue that the Moxibustion is both an accurate representation of a specific treatment and that the representation of pain creates a spectacle. I define spectacle, following Guy Debord and Jeehee Hong, as both a mediator of social relations and a window onto another reality. I argue that in Moxibustion, the representation of pain acts as a window from the everyday world onto supernatural phenomena. Chapter Two discusses Moxibustion in relation to Buddhist artworks from the Southern Song (1127-1279) dynasty depicting scenes from Buddhist Hell and Ming dynasty artworks concerned with the Water-Land Retreat ritual. I argue that in these Buddhist paintings, the spectacle of pain, notions of suffering, endurance, and impermanence bridge a gap between the mundane world and supramundane spaces. It is my assertion that the vehicle of pain mobilized in Moxibustion crafts both connections with contemporaneous artworks and resonances with artworks from distinct artistic and religious traditions across disparate temporalities.

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