Gendered Pain

When Pain Becomes Gendered
by GaEun Choi


One Thursday night, a sharp pain jabs at my stomach. Finishing one final swim practice before an important meet, I feel both exhausted and confused, much like a woman who was questioning her pain tolerance levels post-childbirth.[1] I can’t find a single position that ease the pins in my upper stomach. My mental strength caves in to my physical fatigue and, crying, I visit my acupuncturist.[2] Instead of scattering the usual 12 needles on my hand, stomach, and calves, Dr. Jung oddly places a pot of strong incense under my belly button. Then, he turns on a red heated lamp beaming towards my body.

What prompted him to place this double-heated contraption below my actual point of pain, more close in location to where my period cramps appear than where stress-related tightness from nerves and stress do?

A popular treatment in China, moxibustion was not only used for women. It was so mild it was administered to even children.[3] At the same time, this method of healing is not to be underestimated. Wrongfully placed, the mugwort mixture held the potential to mess up the flow of the body’s energies and consequently weaken the patient, causing dizziness and fatigue, or even worsening the initial disease.

Beyond moxibustion itself, seeing as my doctor calls me “princess,” I wondered if he’d have treated a male swimmer with the same symptoms on different sites of his body.[4] According to historian Charlotte Furth, the first character of the Chinese word for gynecology, fu, only applied to married women;[5] unmarried girls were simply considered “children,” detached from the concept of gender altogether.[6] Women were also commonly generalised to their reproductive organs, specifically their period, and were deemed to be ruled by blood.[7] Then did my doctor decide a treatment for the aching in my digestive organ based on the fact that I had a uterus and was thus governed by my bloodflow?[8]

If yes, then logically, the acceptance of gendered bodies means gendered sites, and gendered sites establish gendered medicine. But the reality isn’t so clear-cut.[9] Distinction between medicine for gendered bodies was not explicitly made, largely influenced by the Taoist belief that the human body healed in relation to the rest of the universe.[10] In other words, energies rule bodies, not any specific organ or the lack thereof. Further, illustrations from the late 19th century are limited to blood circulation and organs in vague oval shapes.[11] [12] However, couldn’t we possibly accept both to create an entirely new understanding of physiology and healing as to highlight the fluidity of gender identities?[13] In mapping the landscape of the body, do we have to subscribe to the general connections made by organs or could we carve specific pathways based on multiple case histories?

I also wonder if the woman’s body could be for more than the harvest of children.[14] While I don’t consider my upper stomach as a particularly female property, I do notice that this easily-irritated stomach is paternally inherited. Where, then, do these generational patterns leave gender in this imagined landscape?

The continued conversation of healing one’s body is much like a distance marker on a map that neither directs nor hinders the vehicle that encounters it, but rather, guides it. Dr. Jung, a modern practitioner of traditional medicine, acknowledges the idea that women require more heat to protect our reproductive organs.[15] By lying still, red lamp and moxa on my lower belly, I realise that every organ in my body works in harmony with surrounding forces, but that that also includes my uterus, which renders my gender identity solidly female. As I inhale one last time the burning mugwort smell, I determine that is perfectly fine.

Works Cited

“Blood, Body, and Gender: Medical Images of the Female Condition in China, 1600–1850.” Chinese Science, by Charlotte Furth, vol. 7, 1986, pp. 43–66.

Despeux, Catherine: ‘1. The body revealed. The contribution of forensic medicine to knowledge and representation of the skeleton in China’ (2007), ‘Graphics and Text in the Production of Technical Knowledge in China’, pp. 633-684, DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004160637.i-772.103

Jianyijiuzhi, 1957. (Unable to cite due to Chinese characters and incompetence to comprehend.)

Schipper, Kristofer. “The Taoist Body.” History of Religions, vol. 17, no. 3/4, 1978, pp. 355–386. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Shigehisa, Kuriyama. “The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine (review).” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, vol. 56 no. 1, 2001, pp. 17-29.

Wilms, Sabine. “‘Ten Times More Difficult to Treat’: Female Bodies in Medical Texts from Early Imperial China.’” Medicine for Women in Imperial China, by Angela Ki Che Leung, Brill, 2006, pp. 74–107.

Wu, Yi-Li. “Reproducing Women: Medicine, Metaphor, and Childbirth in Late Imperial China (Review).” African Studies Review, Cambridge University Press, 29 July 2011,

Yates, Robin D.S.. ““Medicine for Women in Early China: A Preliminary Survey”” Medicine for Women in Imperial China, by Angela Ki Che Leung, Brill, 2006, pp. 74–107.


[1] A case study done reads that a woman who had given birth to her infant learned to feed himself by sucking and biting at the same time. After a few days of excruciating pain from the inside of her nipples, she noticed redness and swelling around the areola where her baby typically sucked. She then quickly went to her local doctor who told she she was at a high risk of mastitis. This disease was known to render a high number of patients with withered breasts. However, her fear subsided to controlled worries as her doctor informed her of a way he knew to both heal the pain and prevent the result of mastitis. She watched as he used 4 pieces of garlic and arranged these 4 pieces of raw root on the swollen part of the breast. He applied three types of moxa continuously, until the mother felt the mixture heat up too much. After two days of operating this way, she was healed. Jianyijiuzhi p. 116.

[2] My acupuncturist, Dr. Jung, is a Korean Medicine Doctor as well as my grandpa’s best friend.

[3] Unlike acupuncture, which necessitates the knowledge of exact points of different blood vessels all over the human body, moxibustion rids of exacticity.

[4] This thought occurred from the common knowledge that males do not get periods; however, later, I mention the possibility of such happening due to the fluid nature of a human body’s makeup (including but not limited to biology).

[5] Robin D.S. Yates, p. 20

[6] Medicine for women in the pre-Song period was influenced by a wide range of cultural and religious beliefs and practices and that these must be taken into consideration when assessing medicine for women as it developed into the complex discipline of gynecology that it became from Song times on. Yates p. 21.

[7] At the same time, the vitality of all human life was seen as a pair of blood with ch’i, a male principle. The intermingling of male and female properties blurred the maps of our bodies, while simultaneously substantiating the idea that “blood followed ch’i,” that women were vital yet secondary. Furth, p. 44.

[8] In Post-Han China, male doctors attempted to focus on “balancing/regulating the menses,” thus learning to prevent chronic female-reproductive conditions including “infertility, susceptibility to cold, or general emaciation and weakness.” This rise of the study on women reinforced the notion during the Song dynasty that female bodies’ primary purpose was to give birth, serving as a cultural metaphor for “cosmology, creation, gender and family relations, and even politics.” Wilms p. 74-75.

[9] The acceptance of differences between female and male bodies heavily conflicted with the earlier classic idea of androgynous bodies. The classical view was founded on the yin and yang model, where bodies were sexually neutral, existing to harmonise with the energies in the universe Wilms p. 105.

The large volumes of work regarding female reproductive processes thus created a space for the question of, “Which medicine treats whom?”

[10] Taoists believed that the human body represented an image of a country “([i-jen chih shen, i-kuo chih hsiang]).” It contained “a landscape with mountains, lakes, woods, and shelters,” and had a ruler, more specifically the heart and spirit of the body, and officials, other bodily organs, to govern over it. Schipper, p. 357.

Kuriyama also accepts the Taoist belief and suggests a kind of body landscape whose flesh is anatomically intertwined with its surroundings. Kuriyama Imagination p. 25.

[11] Upon examining bodies, specifically bones, were conducted in order to try and tell the gender of the deceased body. However, illustrations lack crucial bone structures including the skull and pelvis and only contains images of organs placement and energy circulatory paths. Despeux, p. 639.

[12] From the Song dynasty onwards, skeletons were thought to be distinguishable by sex, but in reality, weren’t as glaringly different as thought and continued to simply publish male skeletons as references for Chinese medicine. Despeux, p. 655.

[13] Gender identity is made up of many factors, including orientation, preference, and biology. These are all on a scale, rather than in set categories.

[14] Wu p. 121

[15] Wilms p. 106


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