By Mengting Lyu
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Theatrical plays in early modern China, from short dramas and slapstick comedies to complex dramas, usually feature quack doctors, called yongyi 庸医. They are often archetypal characters who render absurd diagnoses, produce unreasonable medications, mischievously give wrong pills, and chase after profit. In this essay, I focus on quack doctors in Yuan drama zaju 杂剧 which flourished in the 13–14th centuries. Drama studies contend that a majority of the doctors are untrustworthy quacks in the preserved documents of Yuan dramas, usually played by the rogue figure jing 净 or clown chou 丑, who openly show off ignorance and wickedness in self-introductory verses and present comic clashes. These plays with their vernacular or even vulgar verses reflected common people’s life and various occupations in society, including that of doctors and medical visits. Therefore, the frequent satire of quacks in plays is a window to a cultural understanding of medicine as well as a changing standing of medical profession and market, since the profession of doctors today has varied greatly over history. In addition to discussing how comic dramas criticize moral destitution and incompetent skills of unqualified doctors, this paper explores a broader picture of medical practitioners and lay people’s reception of them. This paper sits at the intersection of theatrical representations and social studies of medicine. Based on both textual review and historical studies of doctors, this paper suggests that the quack in plays is a recreation of real medical practitioners at the time who marketed themselves dramatically on the street, and whose performative development of medicine could have inspired the formation and transmission of vernacular knowledge as an alternative to literary traditions.
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