Academic journal article China Perspectives

The Transmission and Practice of Chinese Medicine: An Overview and Outlook

Academic journal article China Perspectives

The Transmission and Practice of Chinese Medicine: An Overview and Outlook

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)

The identity, specificity and status of Chinese medicine in China

Chinese medicine is made up of a set of theories and practices de- veloped in China over a long period of time, the oldest sources hav- ing been written more than two thousand years ago. It spread ini- tially over the whole of East Asia, and more recently to the West. Backed up by a vast literary corpus and resting on its own paradigmatic construc- tion, it gradually established itself as a genuine medical system including, in particular, its own representation of the body and universe, distinctive conceptions of physiology, aetiology, and pathology, and a therapeutic ar- senal, nosography, and diagnostic methods of a complex and elaborate na- ture. (1) It should also be noted that it presents two specific features that set it apart from both a historical and anthropological point of view. The first is the remarkable epistemological continuity of its theoretical founda- tions, which has been maintained for centuries, at least until the recent past. Admittedly, there have been additions and amendments, but it has certainly not been subject to such fundamental transformations as the sci- entific revolutions that have marked the history of Western medicine since the beginning of the nineteenth century. The second unique feature of the Chinese medicine system is that it not only continues to be practised and recognised at an institutional level in China and a number of other Asian countries, but has also been adopted, either in its entirety or partially, in a number of countries that are both geographically and culturally far re- moved from China. The exportable aspect of Chinese medicine means it has a number of points in common with contemporary Western medicine, although for different reasons and in different proportions that are inter- esting to note. The identity of this medical system, and the way it spreads and adapts to different public health systems, constitute a study model and pose a number of questions that come under disciplines as diverse as history, anthropology, economics, politics, and health law. The aim of this article is to look into several aspects of the issues raised by its spread and its practice, both in China and in the West, including through its relation- ship with Western medicine.

The specific identity of Chinese medicine is a complex question in itself. Should all medicines practised in China be labelled as such? Even if we set aside contemporary biomedicine, which is now commonly practised in China as in all industrialised countries, and is basically applied there in much the same way as in the West, it is necessary to distinguish between several traditional systems used in China. On the one hand, there are "un- official" popular healing practices based on divination ( ... - suanming), witchcraft (... - wushu), and religious beliefs (prayers, rites, and spiritual exercises). These disparate practices can be likened to others that continue to exist in all societies. Of the "official" traditional medicine systems in China, i.e., systems supported by a hospital infrastructure and state-con- trolled education, it is still necessary to make the distinction between those connected with the non-Han minorities that are established in var- ious ways on the political landscape today and can be qualified as ethnic (... - minzu yixue),(2)and Chinese medicine (... - zhongyi) in the strict sense of the term.

It should be noted that zhongyiis a contemporary term and refers indis- criminately to learned medicine that was developed over the whole course of the Imperial period as well as to contemporary Chinese medicine, which today has official status, and not to Western medicine (... - xiyi). When they started to translate manuals into English in the 1950s, the Chinese decided to translate zhongyias "Traditional Chinese Medicine," the obvious intention being, according to Volker Scheid,(3) to generate a certain percep- tion of Chinese medicine in the West. …

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