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“Buddhism, Medicine, and Gender in 10th–16th century Japan: toward a transcultural history of women’s health in premodern East Asia”

Two Japanese women and a child. Woodblock print, paper, ink. Photo: Anna Andreeva.


This project investigates the impact of Buddhist concepts, theories, and practices on the formation of knowledge about women’s bodies and women’s health in medieval Japan. Its aim is for the first time to write a cultural history of childbirth as seen through the Buddhist manuscripts from Japanese temple archives, which cast new light on the histories of knowledge, medicine, and gender. This project analyses the primary source materials that were previously not considered significant by the historians of East Asia who so far tended to privilege Chinese medical sources. The proposed project seeks to rectify this problem by considering the Japanese primary sources against the background of transcultural flows of Buddhist and medical knowledge from India, China, and Korea that brought with them Buddhist scriptures and medical texts as well as ritual technologies focusing on risk control, divination, longevity, and talisman-writing. It is proposed that these flows shaped the spheres of medico-religious knowledge about women’s bodies in medieval Japan. This project thus clarifies how heterogeneous types of knowledge with regard to healing, materia medica, calculation of risks, and ritual technologies focusing on the reproductive health of women were adopted and further developed by Japanese Buddhist scholar-monks, and how such Buddhist expertise was used in the historical, political, and economic settings of pre-1600 Japan. A particularly important objective of this project is to find, transcribe, transliterate, and historically contextualise the medieval manuscripts preserved in Japanese Buddhist temples of esoteric persuasion, particularly those specialising in Shingon, Tendai, and Zen teachings, and to cast light on their historic position vis-a-vis classic Indian Abhidharmic and Yogācāra teachings as those were understood in premodern East Asia, primarily through Chinese Buddhist translations. More broadly, the project brings to the fore the multiple strategies of forecasting and risk management developed or further refined by the Buddhist monks for the benefit of noble women from the imperial court and elite warrior families, and later, non-elite women. As a result, this project elucidates the complex historical, religious, and cultural factors that defined the concepts of womanhood in medieval and early modern Japan. 

Project publications

Anna Andreeva, “Childbirth in Early Medieval Japan Ritual Economies and Medical Emergencies in Procedures During the Day of the Royal Consort’s Labor.” In Buddhism and Medicine: An Anthology of Premodern Sources, edited by Pierce C. Salguero, chapter 32, pp. 336–350. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

Buddhism and Medicine, edited by Pierce C. Salguero. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017

About Anna Andreeva

After earning her PhD from Cambridge in 2007, Anna Andreeva worked as a postdoctoral and research fellow at Harvard, Cambridge, Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context” (Heidelberg), the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Kyoto), the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Berlin) and the International Consortium for Research in the Humanities at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg. In 2016–2017, she was an interim chair of Japanese History at the Faculty of East Asian Studies, Ruhr-Universität-Bochum. She is the author of Assembling Shinto: Buddhist Approaches to Kami Worship in Medieval Japan (Harvard Asia Center, 2017), and the co-editor of Transforming the Void: Embryological Discourse and Reproductive Imagery in East Asian Religions (Leiden: Brill, 2016) and “Childbirth and Women’s Healthcare in Premodern Societies” (Dynamis 34/2, 2014).

For more information on Anna Andreeva, please visit her profile page.