Meet Wanyan: She’s challenging history’s narrative of anatomical art


“Art history is important, because it’s about learning to see images, and see the world.” 

Wanyan is challenging the ways we interpret anatomical art in the East vs. West with her independent Honors fellowship

I try to like argue against the linear fashion of history,” she said. “We think about and talk about anatomical illustrations nowadays like they're pieces of meat on the table. In the 16th century, there were more religious undertones, and the bodies themselves had their own narrative.”

In the West, depictions of the body began with portraits of Jesus, then grew secular when the government started dissecting criminals during the Enlightenment. Meanwhile, in the East, ideas like Confucian sacredness of the body discouraged cutting it open. So there were depictions, but they focused on more natural decay. 

Despite the very unique perspectives of each culture, Wanyan said historians trace medical art as a progression in Europe, with Asia and other regions as lagging behind. 

“It's not that Asians never had the ability or the skill or the investigative spirit to look inside the body. The East and West just had different philosophies.” 

She’s attempting to fill the research gap by looking at the ways both cultures’ anatomical ideologies engaged with each other. 

“Since we know there was contact, I am trying to look at how they influenced one another — not just that Asia received information from the West, but 2-way exchange along the way as well.”

She’s gotten to work with faculty experts from across the University, any they’ve helped her connect the dots between the 2 cultures, even though the traditional research is sparse. It’s led her to some interesting case studies, like an early physician who blended ancient Chinese medicine with Western surgery techniques. 

“His fusion of the two ideas was really successful. He drew from an ancient legendary physician who made this anesthetic — and even today, we don’t know exactly what ingredients he used.” 

Wanyan plans to continue her work, connecting new experts and sources into the story. “I think we're at a time where we're more and more looking back in our own disciplines and analyzing our teaching, and trying to look for problems with the traditional way of teaching, because we're always trying to be better people.”

Cross boundaries like Wanyan. 
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