Tools of an ancient trade
Chinese medicine dolls were once used to diagnose women
By Michael Howerton
Daily Bruin Staff
Upstairs in the Biomedical Library, the dolls are resting.
After centuries of medical service, they recline on tiny couches
in the quiet of the rare book room with a hand cupping one breast
as the only concealment of their entirely nude bodies.
The ivory dolls were once used by women in China to explain to a
doctor where on their bodies they needed medical treatment without
violating cultural taboos of showing their actual bodies, explained
Katharine Donahue, head of Biomedical library history and special
"It was a culture that had a certain sense of propriety about
human bodies," she said, "about what should be and should not be
shown to people outside the family and that included doctors."
A typical examination of a woman would consist of her standing
behind a screen and reaching her hand out so that the doctor could
examine her pulse. Then the women, using one of these dolls, would
pinpoint the area of discomfort, said Richard Rudolph, professor
emeritus of East Asian language and culture.
"It is an extremely interesting tradition," Donahue said. "These
dolls are the physical manifestation of how medicine was practiced
in the culture. Societal values were adapted into the practice of
The small doll was thus a fundamental part of the doctors’ tools
in China for centuries. Some holding flowers and fans, the dolls
are documented as far back as the Ming period, beginning in the
The practice of using dolls, in place of the body, for diagnosis
probably went out of practice in most places in China in the early
years of the 20th century, but Rudolph said he suspects that they
still might be used in small villages.
It was also standard, it appears, for women to own these medical
dolls themselves. If a woman could not come and see her physician,
then a messenger would bring a doll to the doctor so that the
diagnosis could be made, Donahue said. The tradition of using these
dolls was probably an upper-class custom since many of the dolls
have jewelry and bound feet coupled with the fact that peasants
probably could not afford their own dolls.
"Chinese women have always been modest about exposing their
bodies to men," Rudolph said. "Around 1500, when the dolls began to
appear, there was a resurgence of Confucianism in China, which was
The dolls are stylized, all copying a reclining pose resting on
one elbow, with one doll lying on her stomach. Despite this
similarity, the dolls do have minor body shape differences, some
being thinner and some more sinuous, apparently to represent the
body type of the owner more accurately, Donahue said.
Although it appears that considerable care was given to crafting
the dolls, they were not made for display, since it was traditional
in China not to portray women unclothed, she said.
The exhibit was originally created in March for a presentation
to Las Donas, a UCLA alumni group which brings people to campus who
have never been here or try to expose those on campus to previously
unknown aspects of UCLA.
"Everyone who saw the exhibit was very impressed," said Leanee
Schwartz, the first vice president of Las Donas.
The collection of 18 dolls, 13 of which are on display, was
donated by a local woman, who died last week. Along with her
husband, who died last year, she was active in collecting items of
medical history and was important in promoting the field of
medicine in Los Angeles, Donahue said.
The dolls are expected to remain on display until June, however
it is uncertain whether the donor’s recent death will change that,