... those who rule the symbols, rule us.--Alfred Korzybski
OVER THE PAST 30 years, acupuncture and Chinese medicine have transformed the way many North Americans view health and health care. Today over 40% of Americans utilize some form of complementary and alternative medicine (Eisenberg et al., 1998) and acupuncture remains one of the most highly sought-after modalities. (Palinkas et al., 2000, Winslow et al., 2002)
When a millennia-old set of medical practices is appropriated from one socio-cultural setting and adopted into a markedly different one, language becomes a core site for cultural translation. Medical practices are often assumed to be immutable, static, and objectifiable entities. Medical historian Paul Unschuld suggests the opposite: like many medical systems, Chinese medicine is an extremely heterogeneous medicine, grown, adapted, and appropriated in a variety of cultural and historical settings. (Unschuld 1985) According to Unschuld, the practices of acupuncture and Chinese medicine have never constituted a stable, objectifiable set of practices that can be "taken" and then "used" in new cultural settings. The history of acupuncture and Chinese medicine is one of mutability and fluidity, strongly influenced by cultural, historical, and political contexts. (Unschuld 1985, 1987; Farquhar 1994) This raises the question of how medical practices are transformed through intercultural exchange. This essay examines how language functions as a central arena for the cultural translation of Chinese medicine into American contexts.
For those who "broker" the practice of acupuncture in the United States, the issue of cultural translation is deeply enmeshed in a debate over Chinese-language knowledge. This debate constitutes a rich ethnographic study in general semantics, because it brings to the surface a process of self-evaluation integral to the profession of American acupuncture. Cultural translation transfigures into literal translation for several of American acupuncture's luminaries. In interviews during the summers of 2002 and 2003, four of the field's most public personas initiated discussion of a series of questions they all considered crucial to the successful professionalization and cultural translation of the field of American acupuncture. The kinds of questions raised by my interlocutors--such as whether students in American acupuncture schools should be required to learn Chinese or at least Chinese medical language, whether practitioners should have Chinese language skills (such as minimal reading knowledge), and whether the field's public persona should incorporate Chinese language examples and hegemonic translations in their public presentations--constituted the contours of a heated semantic debate within the profession. I began to document this debate ethnographically by noting how each persona situated his or her public identity around these questions.
Background and Methods of this Study
My work to date (Emad 1995, 1997, 1998, 2001 [with Cassidy]) develops a multi-disciplinary, ethnographic exploration of American encounters with acupuncture and Chinese medicine. Drawing on 10 years of participant-observation and interview-based research at multiple urban and rural sites in the United States, the project explores the body as a site for cultural translation in the ongoing development of an American acupuncture. The current component of the study consists of in-depth interviews and participant-observation of the practices and workplaces (sites of practice) of six prominent American acupuncturists, leaders in the field who I identify as culture brokers who have been deeply involved in the professionalization and institutionalization of American acupuncture. (1) Each of these six "translators" of the culture of acupuncture and Chinese medicine are practitioners who have worked and continue to work in the public eye as self-conscious representatives and brokers of acupuncture and Chinese medicine: they have published popular works "translating" acupuncture to a general public and/or set up nationally (and internationally) recognized businesses and/or schools that train American acupuncturists. …