Dangling Threads to Examine the Channels: Tales of Pulse Diagnosis in Tibetan and Chinese Literature
William McGrath, Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Manhattan College
Abstract: In Tibetan and Chinese literature, there are several examples of physicians remotely examining the channels of patients. Physicians usually perform this impressive feat by attaching threads to the patient’s wrist and palpating those threads from behind a wall or screen. The famous Tibetan minister, Gar Tongtsen Yülsung (590–667), for example, is said to have dangled threads out from his window to a Chinese physician while he was held captive in Chang’an. The Tibetan emperor, Tri Songdetsen (ca. 742–800), is said to have tested the skills of foreign physicians using the same method, before arranging for the translation of their medical instructions into the Tibetan language. Perhaps most famously, though, Sun Wukong in the Journey to the West earned the trust of a Central Asian king by dangling threads to examine his channels (xuansi zhenmai 懸絲診脈) and successfully diagnosing his disease. After exploring the cosmopolitan nature of this narrative trope, we will then consider the context of its transmission throughout Asia, as well as what these stories can tell us about the shared history of pulse diagnosis in Tibet, China, and beyond.