Forgotten Disease
Illnesses Transformed in Chinese Medicine
Hilary A. Smith



More than a few of the disease names we use today have been around for a long time, but what they mean now is different from what they meant hundreds of years ago. In English, for example, cancer was once a nonhealing sore caused by bodily humors congealing; malaria an intermittent fever caused by mal aria, bad air; and influenza severe seasonal fever, pain, and sniffles caused by the influence (hence the name) of unlucky stars. Now they are respectively an uncontrolled proliferation of cells, a fever caused by a mosquito-transmitted microbe, and a viral infection. Chinese speakers, too, use disease names that are many centuries old, such as sudden turmoil (huo luan) and flowers of heaven (tian hua), and the meanings of these names have likewise changed. Today sudden turmoil and flowers of heaven are equated with cholera and smallpox, but in the past they were systemic disruptions caused by invasive substances in the environment or by poison contracted in the womb.

This book examines the evolution of one Chinese disease concept, foot qi (jiao qi), from its origins in the fourth century to the present day. I use the word evolution in its neutral sense: not to indicate that the concept of foot qi has gotten better and better, more and more correct, but that it has changed over time to suit the intellectual, social, and epidemiological environment of the day. Contemporary biomedical scientists understand foot qi as the vitamin deficiency disease beriberi, but this view is no less peculiar and conditional than those that preceded and coexist with it, even if it has more cultural authority. To grasp the basic problem, let us examine three scenarios based on historical records of foot qi.

One: The Scholar’s Scourge

Taizhou, southeast China, AD 1274. Che Ruoshui has been enjoying the life of a scholar, spending his days studying the classics, writing commentaries, and exchanging visits with other members of the local elite. When they gather they discuss philosophy, compose poems, and enjoy the finest food that the area has to offer, washed down by endless cups of rice wine. Che has attained notable career success, having studied with eminent teachers; the prefectural magistrate has appointed him to a post in the local academy and recommended him for other positions as well.

But in his mid-sixties Che finds himself crippled by a disease called foot qi. His feet swell and ache; he suffers piercing pain that makes it difficult to walk. Some doctors say his condition was caused by wind or wet qi common in this moist environment. He must have exposed himself to this qi by standing or sitting too long on the damp soil. Other doctors contend that by regularly drinking too much wine, he has damaged his spleen and stomach, impairing the normal circulation of his bodily energies and substances, leading to a stagnant circulation. Whatever the cause, foot qi is common in his social circle and is nothing to be ashamed of—in fact, it is a badge of his elite status. Che thus decides to title the philosophical meditations he is writing Foot Qi Collectanea, in ironic tribute to the disease that has immobilized him.1

Two: Dietary Disaster

Shinagawa, Japan, November 1884. The Japanese Imperial Navy’s ship Tsukuba has returned from an eight-and-a-half-month voyage that took it to Hawaii, Russia, and Korea. During the voyage, fourteen men fell ill from a disease called foot qi (pronounced kakke in Japanese). They variously experienced swelling in the lower extremities, numbness, and heart palpitations. None died. This made Tsukuba’s brush with foot qi far more encouraging than that of her sister ship, Ryūjō, which had made the same voyage a year earlier. Nearly half of Ryūjō’s 376 men had contracted foot qi; twenty-five had died of it before the ship reached the halfway point in Hawaii. What saved the sailors on Tsukuba was a new regimen of rations that the Navy physician Takaki Kanehiro had put in place: more barley, less rice; more meat, less fish. The success of the new rations, combined with the observation that, unlike ordinary sailors, well-fed officers never get foot qi, convinces Takaki that the disease is caused by some sort of dietary imbalance or deficit.2

Three: A Formidable Fungus

Beijing today. A college student has unbearable itching between his toes, and a scaly rash has begun to spread along the balls of his feet—unmistakable signs of foot qi. Ugh! What a nuisance. He probably picked up the fungus in the communal showers or by borrowing his roommate’s slippers. It’s almost impossible to avoid the dreaded “Hong Kong foot” in modern life. That’s why scenes like the one from the novel he’s just been reading are so funny. One character uses the threat of foot qi to try to dissuade another from claiming the designer shoes that their mutual friend left behind:

“Gao always had foot qi—a bad case—be careful you don’t catch it when you wear those shoes.”

“No worries, no worries.”

“I once saw his feet were ulcerated, putting out pus.”

“How could it have been that bad? If it’s really a problem I’ll just wipe them with a little disinfectant.”3

The Internet offers a whole arsenal of foot qi salves and ointments and sprays, so the student orders one he hopes will kill the fungus and take care of the problem. He vows to keep his feet clean and dry and never to borrow slippers again.

Foot qi, a two-character compound in the Chinese script that speakers of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese have all shared, has appeared in East Asian texts since at least the fourth century AD. But, as these three scenarios show, the term has meant very different things in different periods and places. In some contexts, foot qi was a goutlike affliction of the well-to-do, painful but not generally fatal; in others, foot qi was beriberi, which disproportionately struck the lower classes, killed swiftly, and was caused by a nutritional deficiency. In mainland China today, foot qi is athlete’s foot, the itchy scourge of public showers. It afflicts many but kills no one.

How can we reconcile these vignettes? They use the same name for what, from a modern biomedical perspective, are clearly different conditions. The most common approach is to privilege the middle one over the other two, to say that what afflicted Japanese sailors in the nineteenth century was true foot qi, whereas the sufferers in the other two scenarios really had something else, even if the victims or their doctors didn’t recognize it.4 Meanings of foot qi that predated microbiology are deemed too unscientific, and the current athlete’s foot meaning too colloquial, to accept as legitimate readings. So foot qi is really, historians and scientists tell us, beriberi.

The problem is that privileging a nineteenth-century translation like this distorts our understanding of the past. It places undue emphasis on discoveries made by Western and Western-trained physicians in the nineteenth century, ignoring the extensive body of premodern Chinese medical literature. It prioritizes the kinds of suffering characteristic of the dawn of the modern age and recognizes the suffering of past invalids only to the extent that it resembles that outmoded model. It closes off alternative readings of ancient medical texts, limiting the applications of the knowledge those texts contain. And it ignores scholarship in the history of medicine showing how social and cultural environments shape disease concepts.

If such historical myopia were unique to foot qi, one could dismiss it as an oddity. But it is not. Many other ancient diseases, such as flowers of heaven (tian hua), sudden turmoil (huo luan), plum poison (mei du), and numbing wind (ma feng), are similarily distorted by the translations they acquired in the modern period: respectively and unambiguously, smallpox, cholera, syphilis, and leprosy. The consequences appear in historical depictions both popular and scholarly: in Red Cliff (Chi Bi), a movie based on historical events of the third century BC, soldiers in camp are afflicted by a disease called cold damage (shang han), which the English subtitles translate “typhoid.”5 The translation, based on an association between shang han and typhoid developed in the nineteenth century and reinforced, as Sean Hsiang-lin Lei has shown, in the 1930s, confers unwarranted precision on the ancient epidemic.6 It may be unreasonable to expect to see historical best practices in a blockbuster film, but specialized historical sources elide modern and ancient illnesses in the same way. A recent scholarly translation of the Chinese medical classic The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon, produced by experienced specialists in the field of Chinese medical history, straightforwardly translates the ancient term nüe as “malaria,” even though, as the translators themselves concede, nüe at this time was probably used for “all types of intermittent fevers.”7 By contrast, the same scholars allow terms that did not acquire a modern translation in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century—such as jie, which also indicated an intermittent fever—to remain untranslated. Thus the translated text implies that historians understand what the Inner Canon’s nüe was better than we understand what its jie was.8 We don’t.

This book argues that we need a more satisfactory way to approach premodern Chinese diseases. It offers a history of one such disease, the one called foot qi, to provide an example of what a better approach might look like. Foot qi epitomizes the problem of presentist translation. It features in thousands of pre–twentieth-century medical books, and the diversity of symptoms associated with it makes it impossible to identify foot qi with a single modern disease. Chinese and Japanese sources written before the nineteenth century describe it as a protean ailment that mostly plagued the rich and sedentary. In some cases the feet and lower legs swelled up, some were accompanied by chills and fever, and some featured shortness of breath. Some foot qi sufferers are described as feeling “a creeping sensation like insects crawling around” or “a thing like fingers . . . which travels upward and attacks the heart.”9 They might be particularly sensitive to cold, to light, or to the smell of food; they might have twitching in the lower legs or across the entire body. Hot flashes and headaches plagued some foot qi patients, whereas some experienced stomach pain and throbbing in the chest. Sources mention both dementia and diarrhea as diagnostic signs. An eighteenth-century text illustrates “foot qi sores” on the calves, filled with yellow fluid, as a signature (see Figure 4 in Chapter Seven). And this is hardly a comprehensive list of signs.

One might expect such variety in the sources to stymie attempts to identify foot qi with a single modern disease. Without the blood and urine tests available today to measure vitamin levels in the body, it is impossible to confidently say that the diverse symptoms associated with foot qi in the premodern literature were clinical beriberi. Some of the described symptoms, to be sure, match those of modern beriberi: lower leg swelling and weakening, for example, or heart palpitations and dementia in advanced cases. Others do not, including chills and fever, sores, or the crawling-insect sensations. And even those symptoms that are a good match are too diffuse and general to rule out other possibilities. As the contemporary historian Liao Yuqun has suggested, heart disease, syphilis, and heavy metal poisoning fit equally well and, in some instances, better.10 Gout, too, corresponds well to descriptions of foot qi in certain periods, as Chapter Five shows.

Despite this pile of credible alternatives, however, it is the vitamin deficiency disorder beriberi that stands aloft as the officially sanctioned translation of foot qi, past and present, as a look at any Chinese dictionary will attest. Occasionally athlete’s foot rates a secondary mention as an “informal” meaning of the term, but beriberi is consistently the first and approved meaning. Even the venerable Great Dictionary of Chinese (Han yu da ci dian), which traces the historical etymology of classical Chinese words as the Oxford English Dictionary does for English ones, defines foot qi as “A disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1,” although the third-century usage example that follows this definition does not indicate such a deficiency. The standard translation also affects the way librarians classify old books: one Library of Congress subject heading for the eleventh-century Comprehensive Essentials for the Treatment of Foot Qi is “Beri-beri—treatment—early works to 1800.”

This book explores the history of foot qi in seven chronologically ordered chapters. Chapter One examines the context in which Chinese observers first began to write about foot qi in the fourth century CE. At a time when conflict was driving large numbers of Chinese aristocrats from their homes on the north China plain southward to the Yangzi River area, foot qi seemed to be a particular problem of northern emigrants facing southern miasmas. Their bodies were not prepared to confront the foreign environment of their new home. Chapter Two shows how seventh-century rival healers and patients themselves disagreed about foot qi’s causes, symptoms, and appropriate treatment, reflecting the unregulated and competitive medical occupation characteristic of imperial China. Chapter Three explains how, in the tenth century, a government unusually active in promoting public health standardized and simplified foot qi in ways that would eventually carry over into modern categories of beriberi. Chapter Four investigates how a thirteenth-century physician fascinated by digestion created a new form of foot qi related to bad diet, and Chapter Five analyzes the social and economic circumstances that turned that new dietary disorder into the most prominent form of the disease in late imperial China. In Chapter Six you will find the story of beriberi’s rise in Asia and how foot qi and the vitamin deficiency disorder came to be treated as synonyms in nineteenth-century Japan. Finally, Chapter Seven shows how the modernizing elite in early twentieth-century China accepted the Japanese reinterpretation of foot qi as beriberi and how most Chinese people, who had little experience of beriberi, rejected that definition in favor of one more personally relevant: athlete’s foot.

Even in the age of biomedicine, concepts of foot qi remain complex. In Japan, it is understood as beriberi; in Taiwan, usually as beriberi but sometimes as athlete’s foot; and in mainland China, sometimes as beriberi, usually as athlete’s foot, and occasionally a goutlike pain disorder. These differences are rooted in the very different paths of transformation that each East Asian nation followed in the early twentieth century, and they belie the impression that the biomedical translation of a classical East Asian disease concept is bound to be universal.


1. Che Ruoshui, Jiao qi ji [Foot qi collectanea].

2. Kanehiro Takaki, “On the Cause and Prevention of Kak’ke” and “Japanese Navy and Army Sanitation.”

3. Wang Gang, Yue liang bei mian, chapter 2.

4. Examples of historians privileging the beriberi meaning of foot qi include K. Chimin Wong and Wu Lien-teh, History of Chinese Medicine, 212; Fan Xingzhun, Zhong guo bing shi xin yi [New readings in the history of disease in China], 245; Lu Gwei-djen and Joseph Needham, “A Contribution to the History of Chinese Dietetics,” 13; Edward H. Schafer, The Vermilion Bird, 133; Yamashita Seizō, Kakke no rekishi: bitamin hakken yizen. [History of foot qi: before the discovery of vitamins], 44; Chen Shengkun, Zhong guo chuan tong yi xue shi [History of Chinese traditional medicine], 176–181; and Zhang Daqing, Zhong guo jin dai ji bing she hui shi (1912–1937) [A social history of diseases in modern China (1912–1937)], 33.

5. Red Cliff, DVD, directed by John Woo.

6. Sean Hsiang-lin Lei, Neither Donkey nor Horse, 172–177.

7. Huang Di nei jing su wen: An Annotated Translation, translated by Paul U. Unschuld and Hermann Tessenow in collaboration with Zheng Jinsheng, 47.

8. Ibid.

9. Sun Simiao, Bei ji qian jin yao fang [Essential emergency formulas worth a thousand in gold], 271.

10. Liao Yuqun, “Guan yu Zhong guo gu dai de jiao qi bing ji qi li shi de yan jiu [On the history of foot qi disease in ancient China].” Fu Youfeng has suggested bubonic plague as the “original meaning” of foot qi, an argument I find unconvincing but that further demonstrates how pliable premodern foot qi is. Fu, “Jiao qi ben yi yu xian shu yi shi hua [Historical discussion of plague and the original meaning of foot qi,]” 25–31.