Lan A. Li

Lan A. Li

Assistant Professor, History of Medicine, School of Medicine

Contact Information

Research Interests: History of East Asian medicine; global Chinese medicine; histories of neuroscience; postcolonial science studies; race and racism in health care access

Education: PhD, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

I am a historian of the body, focusing on medicine and health in global East Asia. My research engages with topics related to anatomical representation, theory and practice in Asian medicine, histories of acupuncture-moxabustion in neuroscience, and the relationship between medical education and race and racism in health care access. I received my Ph.D. in History, Anthropology, and Science Technology and Society Studies from MIT in 2016 and served as a Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience at Columbia University before joining the medical humanities program and department of history faculty at Rice University.

My first book manuscript, Body Maps: Improvising Meridians and Nerves in Global Chinese Medicine (under review at Johns Hopkins University Press), explores a visual history of mapping meridians onto peripheral nerves from the early modern period to the twentieth century. It offers a long global history of medicine through hand-drawn body maps and spans from the tenth to the twentieth centuries to re-think cultures of objectivity beyond normative geographies of science and medicine. The book contributes to ongoing debates between practitioners and historians on the metaphorical and imaginary components of Chinese medicine by drawing on insights from science studies, critical cartography, and medical anthropology. My second project centers on a transnational history of numbness, which situates numbness, or ma 麻, in categories of flavor and food before tracking its transformation into a pathological side effect. 

At Hopkins, I currently serve as co-director of the Online Program in the History of Medicine. In my role as Associate Director of Research at The Center for Black Brown Queer Studies, I direct the Medicine Race Democracy Lab, which trains students in exploring community health centers beyond large hospital systems and is home to the podcast series metastasis and Point Break. I am the co-founder and co-host of the exhibition Metaphors of the Mind with Dr. Alex Wragge Morley, I serve as the editor of eikon in, and I am the East Asian book reviews editor for Asian Medicine. My film and media work has led to collaborations with medical practitioners in Shanghai, Mumbai, São Paulo, New York, Boston, and Houston.

I teach courses related to the history of drugs, history of sensation, public health in East Asia, and graduate methods seminars. Students interested in histories of Asian medicine are welcome to contact me regarding undergraduate and graduate training.

I co-habit with two holland lop bunnies and grey tabby cat.

I am a historian of medicine, practicing filmmaker, and research lab director. My projects engage with issues related to medical theory, practice, and access at different temporal and geopolitical scales. My conceptual frameworks include approaches in visual studies, science studies, disability studies, and postcolonial studies. I take a broad temporal approach by working with sources across the early modern and modern periods in East Asia and beyond. This work has led to a monograph on body maps, a second project on numbness, as well as several interdisciplinary collaborations in the digital and medical humanities that engage with artists, scholars, and students.

 My first book manuscript, Intimate Cartographies: Mapping Meridians and Nerves in Global Chinese Medicine aims to reframe generic anatomical images. It introduces a long history of hand-drawn body maps from the tenth to the twentieth centuries to re-think cultures of objectivity beyond national narratives of science and medicine. I compare the ways in which medical practitioners interpreted meridian paths in acupuncture atlases as expressions of nervous anatomy to show the conditions under which they were similar, different, and overlapping. Though nervous anatomy shared similarities with meridians in acupuncture, they had emerged independently from different scientific practice standards and drawing styles.

By building on insights from postcolonial science studies, Chinese studies, critical cartography, and medical anthropology, Intimate Cartographies contributes to ongoing debates between practitioners and historians on the metaphorical and imaginary components of Chinese medicine. Though acupuncture atlases may appear “Chinese,” they emerged from a long history of transmission, translation, and transformation. And in thinking about sensations at the surface of the skin—areas at the “periphery”—the book further reveals a history of body mapping (through global Chinese medicine) that extended beyond the brain.

My second monograph, Pinpricks: A Cultural History of Numbness, takes on a cultural history of numbness and explores a history of taste and sensation through various medical technologies. Pinpricks considers numbness as a material, linguistic, and embodied object and builds on my previous work with patients who have experienced chronic tingling following chemotherapy. As a historical project, Pinpricks explores how numbness transformed from being a diagnostic tool to a pathological side effect. Rather than defining numbness as the absence of sensation, I take on its multiple identities in a cross-cultural context to contribute to debates on the mental and emotional limits of pain.

 My article publications engage with social, political, and cultural histories of science and medicine. Each piece attends to making theoretical, methodological, and historical contributions in the field. I have published on film studies and representations of barefoot doctors in Endeavour to complicate the political and cultural identity of a “barefoot doctor” through media analysis of material during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and theorize the kind of labor that barefoot doctors represented. I have also written on feminist intellectual history of medicine in China in Asian Medicine that takes on a paratextual analysis of inscriptions by historian of medicine Lu Gwei-Djen (1904-1991) to uncover Lu’s influence on the materialist underpinnings of histories of medicine in China. 

I have also published on the history of body maps for the special series Fluid Matters with ANU Press edited by Natalie Köhle and Shigehisa Kuriyama, to interrogate the relationship between photography and hand-drawn images in anatomical illustrations. I have joined my interests in the history of anatomy with the history of cognition in a forthcoming essay on a history of spleens—an organ injured by and responsible for overthinking. Here, I discuss how overthinking was categorized in early modern texts as a kind of emotion. My recent articles relate to my second book manuscript project on the history of numbness. I have published a cultural history of food and sensation in Gastronomica that takes on a cultural history of peppercorn through what I call “numbing aesthetics.” This expands on peppercorn as a literary, medical, and culinary object. I am currently drafting an article on the ontology of numbness for BJHS Themes that surveys the shifting historical ontology of numbness as a flavor and as a feeling in medieval and early modern medical texts originating in East Asia. 

I have led several interdisciplinary exhibitions that build on my training in media production and my attention to collaborative initiatives as opportunities for experimentation. These digital humanities projects have served as generative moments to sharpen research questions and dedicate time to building new intellectual and software skills. The first major project I co-created was Metaphors of the Mind, which joined experts in cellular biology, history, literature, psychiatry, and religion to explore the material technologies that have been used to articulate cognition, emotion, and affect. The project involved producing a series of short films and extended interviews that focus on material metaphors of the mind across cultures, from medieval alchemical apparatuses to Chinese pictograms.

The second major project that I undertook was titled PULSES | PROCESSING, which began as a pilot workshop resulted in a physical exhibition. It aimed to visually translate haptic ways of knowing (specifically Chinese pulse taking) into interactive projection images. The exhibition was created by museum curators, art historians, medical historians, classicists, creative coders, and students majoring in engineering, biochemistry, English, and the visual and dramatic arts. Together, we learned Processing, an open-source language and IDE (integrated development environment) based on Java. Over a year, we studied primary texts and transformed diagnostic styles of pulse and palpation from text, to touch, to sounds and shapes.

In 2021, I founded the Medicine, Race, Democracy Lab, which is an interdisciplinary initiative that examines health care beyond and between hospitals to address issues related to medical racism. Our eight research clusters use a variety of methods in the medical humanities, including literature review, oral history, and cartography, to offer a variety of research outputs, including film, poetry, essays, maps, and podcasts. Specifically, we engage with neighborhood institutions like community centers, churches, temples, charities, and schools that house clinics and offer services to patients seeking care beyond the Texas Medical Center.

ME.150.730: Methods in the History of Medicine

AS.140.616: Metaphors in Science and Medicine

AS.001.190: FYS: Poisons! A History

AS.140.149: Histories of Public Health in Asia


Body Maps: Improvising Meridians and Nerves in Global Chinese Medicine (under review with Johns Hopkins University Press)

Select Publications

Li, L. “Emotional Spleens: Death by Overthinking in Classical Chinese Texts.” In The Routledge History of Emotions in the Modern World. Katie Barclay and Peter Stearns (eds).

Li, L. “Escaping Immortality: Science, Civilization, and Lu Gwei-djen (1904-1991).” In (In)visible Labour: Knowledge Production in Twentieth Century Science. Jenny Bangham, Xan Chacko, Judith Kaplan (eds).

Li, L. “Chinese Medical Illustrations and Communist Materialism (1950-1966).” In Making Sense of Medicine: Materiality and the Reproduction of Medical Knowledge. John Nott and Anna Harris (eds).

Li, L. “Numbing Aesthetics: Taste and Tempers of Peppercorn / Mountain Pepper / Sanshō.” Gastronomica. 20.4: 64-74. 

Li, L. “Sunk from Sight: Mapping the Fluid Body.” In Fluid Matter(s): Flow and Transformation in the History of the Body, edited by Natalie Köhle and Shigehisa Kuriyama. Asian Studies Monograph Series 14. Canberra, ANU Press, 2020.

Li, L. “Medical Poetics: Global Health Humanities on Film and the Case of 心.” In The Routledge Companion to Health Humanities, eds P. Crawford, B. Brown, & A. Charise, 163–72. 2020.

Li, L. “Pinpricks: Needling, Numbness, and Temporalities of Pain.” In Imagining the Brain: Episodes in the History of Brain Research, 1st ed., 243: 205–29. Academic Press, 2018.

Li, L. “Invisible Bodies: Lu Gwei-djen & the Specter of Translation.” Asian Medicine 13 (1–2): 33-68.

Li, L. “The Edge of Expertise: Representing Barefoot Doctors in Cultural Revolution China.” Endeavour 39, no. 3–4 (September 2015): 160–67.

Medicine, Race, Democracy Lab. Director    


Blue Beryl. Producer. (2022-)

Point Break. Creator, Director (2022-)

Bermac Sessions. Creator, Director (2022-)                                      

meta-stasis podcast. Creator, Director (2021-)

Select Exhibitions

re-building: methods in material culture. Editor (2020)

PULSES | PROCESSING. Director (2020-2021)

Metaphors of the Mind. Co-Creator, Producer (2017-2021)

Select Filmography

Acupuntura (2021) Associação de Terapias Tradicionais: Acupuntura, São Paulo. Director.

Fear/Trauma. (2020) Director, Cinematographer.

Weaving Knowledge: Banraijaisook. (2019) Director, Cinematographer.

Weaving Knowledge: Thinking, Feeling, and Making. (2019) Director, Cinematographer.

Weaving Knowledge: Looms of Banraijaisook. (2019) Director, Cinematographer.

Inside the MitoLab. (2019) Director, Cinematographer.

Metaphors of the Mind. (2019) Creator, Co-host. Interdisciplinary series on global representations of cognition, emotion, and mental states.  

Bird Talk. (2019) Director, Cinematographer.

Thinking Organs. (2018) Director, Cinematographer.

Alchemical Metaphors of Cognition. (2018) Director, Cinematographer.

Sounding Pain in Japanese. (2018) Director, Cinematographer.

Mind Reading. (2018) Director, Cinematographer.

States of Mind. (2018) Director, Cinematographer.

Cell Signals. (2018) Director, Cinematographer.

Merkel Cells Activate Sensory Neural Pathways through Adrenergic Synapses. (2018) Neuron. Director, Cinematographer.

Meditation and Healing at the Hospital and at Soji Zen Center. (2018) Director, Cinematographer. The Jivaka Project: Buddhist Health and Healing.

Annual Medicine Buddha Ceremony at Minh Dang Quang. (2018) Director, Cinematographer. The Jivaka Project: Buddhist Health and Healing.

Songkran Festival at Wat Mongkoltepmunee. (2018) Director, Cinematographer. The Jivaka Project: Buddhist Health and Healing.

Traditional Medicine and Spiritual Development at Won Institute. (2018) Director, Cinematographer. The Jivaka Project: Buddhist Health and Healing.

Healing Community Trauma at Seabrook Temple. (2018) Director, Cinematographer. The Jivaka Project: Buddhist Health and Healing.

Buddhist Healthcare in Philadelphia. (2018) Director, Cinematographer. The Jivaka Project: Buddhist Health and Healing.

Urban Temples. (2018) Director, Editor. Short film of urban temples in Philadelphia.

Making and Knowing. (2017) Assistant Director, Editor.  A tour of the Making and Knowing Lab with Professor Pamela Smith at Columbia University.

Weaving (2017) Assistant Director, Editor. Featuring the intersection of craft and cognition through a workshop-conference on weaving at Columbia University, titled, “Weaving: Cognition, Technology, and Culture.”

Global Histories of Music Theory (2017) Director, Editor, Producer. Exploring the material and methodological possibilities of examining music practice and theory.

Politically, Correct: Determining Scientific Truth and Legitimacy (2017), Director, Editor, Producer. Panel trailer on histories of knowledge production in India, Tibet, Japan, and China for the International Congress on Traditional Asian Medicine.

On Aging: Liao Jialun b. 1928 (2017) Director, Editor. Beijing, China.

The Lung, The Elixir, and the Lancet: The Personal Paradox of Lu Gwei-djen (2013), Director, Editor, Writer. Screened at the Digital Short Films in the History of Medicine, American Association for the History of Medicine 87th Annual Meeting, University of Chicago Medicine. May 2014.

Osher (2013), Director, Videographer, Editor, Writer. Produced with Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The Vital Other: Integrative Medicine and India (2012), Director, Videographer, Editor, Writer.  Produced with the International Association for the Study of Traditional Asian Medicine, India.  Official selection for the Salem Film Festival Mass Reality Check.

Rocks, Bands, Logic (2012), Director, Videographer, Editor, Writer.  Winner of the Comparative Media Studies, Media Spectacle Graduate Documentary Award, 2012.

Living Beyond Landscapes (2010), Director, Videographer, Editor. Grand Prize Winner, ExchangesConnect, United States State Department.