No Such Thing as Chinese Medicine?
Photo by Tom Mooring/Flickr via Creative Commons
Alan Levinovitz, assistant professor of Chinese philosophy and religion at James Madison University, has written an intriguing article on 'Chinese medicine' for Slate: "Chairman Mao Invented Traditional Chinese Medicine" (Slate, October 22 2013 [H/T Seouldout]). According to Levinovitz:
[T]here was no such thing as "Chinese medicine." For thousands of years, healing practices in China had been highly idiosyncratic. Attempts at institutionalizing medical education were largely unsuccessful, and most practitioners drew at will on a mixture of demonology, astrology, yin-yang five phases theory, classic texts, folk wisdom, and personal experience.Levinovitz is obviously perpetuating Orientalist stereotypes of the sort exposed by Edward Said, right? Wrong! He's merely doing what skeptical Chinese have themselves done -- engage in logical, empirical critique:
After all, that's what Wang Qingren did during the Qing Dynasty when he wrote Correcting the Errors of Medical Literature. Wang's work on the book began in 1797, when an epidemic broke out in his town and killed hundreds of children. The children were buried in shallow graves in a public cemetery, allowing stray dogs to dig them up and devour them, a custom thought to protect the next child in the family from premature death. On daily walks past the graveyard, Wang systematically studied the anatomy of the children’s corpses, discovering significant differences between what he saw and the content of Chinese classics.More recently, there's Lu Xun's skepticism:
And nearly 2,000 years ago, the philosopher Wang Chong mounted a devastating (and hilarious) critique of yin-yang five phases theory: "The horse is connected with wu (fire), the rat with zi (water). If water really conquers fire, [it would be much more convincing if] rats normally attacked horses and drove them away. Then the cock is connected with ya (metal) and the hare with mao (wood). If metal really conquers wood, why do cocks not devour hares?" (The translation of Wang Chong and the account of Wang Qingren come from Paul Unschuld's Medicine in China: A History of Ideas.)
In 1923, Lu Xun, China's most famous man of letters, reflected critically on his father's visits to a Chinese doctor, visits that bankrupted the family and failed to produce results. "I still remember the doctor's discussion and prescription," Lu wrote, "and if I compare them with my knowledge now, I slowly realize that Chinese doctors are no more than a type of swindler, either intentional or unintentional, and I sympathize with deceived sick people and their families."Those were skeptical Chinese, but I can offer a critique of traditional Chinese medicine published in 1932 by the Korean novelist Yi Kwang-su in his book The Soil, selecting from a passage where a certain Mr. Yun turns to traditional doctors to cure his son, In-seon, but begins to disbelieve in the traditional medicine:
Mr. Yun then invited a famous traditional doctor who was said to have studied twenty years at Jiri Mountain. This doctor prescribed deer antlers and certain roots, such as mulberry, that had to be decocted and imbibed. In-seon took the medicine, but became red and hot over his entire body. He grew delirious, spoke senselessly, and laughed spasmodically . . . . In the reception room were still some . . . doctors of traditional medicine with official governmental titles like jinsa, or sagwa. They were debating the five natural elements in the Chinese art of divination and the sixty combinations of Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches to decide on how to change the direction of the sick person's head every day, from which direction the water for the concoction had to be drawn, or at what time the concoction had to be performed and so on.Yi Kwang-su would appear to agree with his character Mr. Yun, as much of the rest of the novel makes clear. As for Levinovitz, he's exaggerating in his claim that Mao invented traditional Chinese medicine, but if you read Levinovitz's article -- and read it generously -- you'll see his point, for Mao supported systematization of traditional medicine even though he didn't believe in it and himself used Western medicine.
These men took care of their concoction personally, sitting beside the fire and ordering a housemaid standing nearby to assist. She was forever being ordered to light the pipe tobacco and bring it over . . . . Mr. Yun . . . . turned . . . to the traditional doctors . . . and reprimanded them, saying, "Of what use is that medicine?"
The doctors again started to debate the cause of the disease, but without knowing what they were talking about and just mouthing traditional medical terminology.
From outside, the boiling of the medicine pot grew audible, and the vapor with its peculiar odor came seeping through the pot's paper cover . . . . The ginseng and deer antlers having provided no beneficial effect, In-seon died . . . . After watching his eldest son die, Mr. Yun charged into the reception room and drove out the doctors . . . , the daoist masters. "Fools, what do you know? You killed my son!" (Yi Kwang-su, The Soil, translated by Sun-Ae Hwang and Horace Jeffery Hodges, Dalkey Archive Press, 2013, 13-15)
Read the article to find out why.