The Mysteries of Lam Qua

Cross-posted at HNN.

The Mysteries of Lam Qua” is a gallery of nineteenth century oil portraits by a Chinese artist known as Lam Qua (林官) (1801-1860). His paintings are beautiful, grotesque physiological studies of patients with extreme tumour growths. Lam Qua’s paintings were specially commissioned by Reverend Dr Peter Parker, who established the first American hospital in Guangzhou in 1835 and who successfully introduced several Western surgical techniques to China: amputation, anesthesia and reconstructive surgery.

I visited the Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh this past summer and recall the same sense of wide-eyed, horrified fascination which many of its exhibits evoked in me: a tiny, perfect fetus curled into itself, baring a spine like a ridged toothpick; a plaster cast of a dissected human torso; a meticulous diagram of tooth extraction. Exhibits of medical conditions arrest a moment of pain, and render it frozen and motionless. My sense of unease must come, I suppose, from the sympathy of pain (a deeply private but nonetheless very universal thing) and from the stillness which we all know is so inappropriate to the experience of pain (for in pain, we squirm, we flail, we cry — in pain, we are not still, unless in sleep or death).

The Lam Qua paintings are unsettling in a further way. Captured in oils, the patients bear their anomalies calmly, as if they were props: like a rose borne delicately in one hand, say, or a pearl earring. Their characters shine through in the way they hold themselves, the way they gaze at the viewer, their expressions, the way they dress — some are even set amidst landscape. In all respects, then, these paintings are portraits, except for the grotesque and painful anomalies they depict (almost as though incidental to the portrait), and the juxtaposition is unsettling.

Apart from everything else, then, the paintings made me think a lot about how we feel about, view and come to terms with physical abnormality. And this is why I thought the small related display, Ways of Seeing, was right on topic. It’s a flash program which imposes a narrow field of vision on a Lam Qua portrait, and then widens out to slowly permit us full view. Exhibit #2 begins with the face of a woman — we meet her dignified, regal gaze — and then widens to show us the ghastly blight on her breast. We are first impressed, then repelled; perhaps if we met her in real life, our gaze might follow the same trajectory from her normality to her abnormality. But the widening of our vision can work the other way around too. As Exhibit #3 suggests, we might begin staring with horrified fascination at an abnormality, but widen our vision to acknowledge the whole human, and perhaps, to recognize the humanity of the whole.

The wonderful “Mysteries of Lam Qua” project, by Stephen Rachman, grew out of a seminar taught at Michigan State University in 2001 on Medicine, Race and Culture. Lam Qua’s paintings are held in the Peter Parker Collection at the Yale University Medical Historical Library and the Gordon Museum at King’s College London. You can view the whole gallery here.


10 responses to “The Mysteries of Lam Qua

  • Steven Day

    Larissa Heinrich has written on Lam Qua in her _The Afterlife of Images: Translating the Pathological Body between China and the West_ See Chapter 2, “The Pathological Body: Lam Qua’s Medical Portraiture.” Excellent work.

  • Peter F

    does the abnormality have to stay unsettling? or thru these paintings we can learn to accept the abnormalities as the characters have themselves?

    • Rachel

      That’s a great observation – so your idea would be that many of them look calm & comfortable enough in their present skin that they might make a repulsed viewer a little uncomfortable with his revulsion?

      I think it’s worth noting, though, that these patients mostly got painted because they sought surgical correction, which suggests they themselves regarded what they had as abnormal/unsettling/unwanted. Those who accepted themselves probably aren’t represented in this particular archive. But sure – the paintings might still represent something which they probably aren’t in reality (and evoke related responses), in part through the skill & sympathy of the artist.

      • Peter F

        “uncomfortable with his/her revulsion” isn’t really what I meant; I meant rather than one could get through the revulsion. As you point out, that doesn’t mean one wants to keep the abnormality, but it means learning not to feel uneasy in front of them.

        Mainly what I am trying to communicate is from my own experiences. Disabilities are varied enough that some previously unknown condition will always come along to shock or surprise even people who used to being with other people with other people with disabilities. The important step that follows the shock/unease/revulsion is one of growing accustomed, of feeling a certain level of comfort with it.

        Maybe what you saw in the characters shining and their peaceful expressions is a way the viewer can make some of the journey from shocked to accustomed.

      • Rachel

        thanks, I like that clarification — getting through rather than staying uncomfortable. I don’t really have a good vocabulary for this, but do you think the viewer and the patient think about getting through the revulsion with the same emotional/mental instruments? I think I mean to ask whether, on the inside, self-acceptance might (or should?) feel like the same sort of thing as acceptance of others, or whether they require different kinds of strength or are a different way of thinking… Or something. Would be really interested in your thoughts on this. 

        On these matters you might be interested in having a closer look at the boy featured in the only beforeafter series in the Lam Qua collection, and reading the case notes? I found comparison between these two women with hand tumours interesting too. 

      • Rachel

        have received wisdom and edification via private email, but you can read Peter’s wise public thoughts on disability, and acceptance vs self-acceptance, in this post ( and on his website in general (

  • Steve Rachman

    Interesting comments but you neglected to mention that this is my work. Steve R. You might also find this interesting.

  • Rachel

    many apologies for the oversight (to be rectified shortly!) and thank you for the link!

  • Steve Rachman

    Great post/response!

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