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Man and Tree, Tumour and Burl: Complicating the Ecology of Illness in Early and Medieval China

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In early and medieval China, the natural world was understood, to an extent, to mirror human conduct and action. Because human events were often apprehended as poetic and metaphoric extensions of larger elemental processes, people in early and medieval China tended to see tumours as moral punishment meted out by all-seeing Heaven (tian) or karmic retribution in Buddhism. One would think, then, that burls, the grotesque, malformed intumescences bulging from trunks of trees would be relegated to the realm of the wicked and inauspicious. Surprisingly, this is not the case. Examining a series of passages involving burls in a wide range of early and medieval Chinese texts, this essay seeks to complicate this rather facile moral schema. The anomalous tumescent growth, whether on tree or man, did not simply betoken evil. At different times, the polysemous tumour-burl might augur future greatness, serve as a miraculous womb chamber, help one assume a twisted guise assumed to survive tumultuous times, impress with its remarkable aesthetic asymmetry, or merely provide a moment of levity.
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Keywords: Zhuangzi; burl; karmic retribution; tianren ganying; tumour

Appeared or available online: April 2, 2019

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