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Currents of Tradition in Chinese Medicine 1626 to 2006 (9780939616565)

Currents of Tradition in Chinese Medicine 1626 to 2006

ISBN: 9780939616565
Publisher: Eastland Press
Binding: Paperback

by Volker Scheid
In 1626, a young man named Fei Shangyou moved his family to Menghe, a small town in the Yangzi delta of China. According to family legend, he abandoned his career as a scholar and began working as a physician. In doing so, he founded a medical lineage that continues to the present day. This book describes the development, flourishing, and decline of this lineage and its many branches, as well as that of the other medical lineages and families with which it merged over time to form the "current of Menghe learning” (Menghe xuepai).

This current and its offshoots produced some of the most influential physicians in the Chinese medical tradition during the 19th and 20th centuries. Menghe physicians, their disciples and students treated emperors, imperial mandarins, Nationalist Party generals, leading figures in the Communist Party, affluent businessmen, and influential artists.

In late imperial China, Menghe medicine was a self-conscious attempt to unite diverse strands of medical learning into one integrated tradition centered on ancient principles of practice. In Republican Shanghai, Menghe physicians and their students were at the forefront of medical modernization, establishing schools, professional associations, and journals that became models for others to follow. During the 1950s and 1960s, the heirs of Menghe medicine were key players in creating the institutional framework for contemporary Chinese medicine. Their students are now practicing all over the world, shaping Chinese medicine in Los Angeles, New York, Oxford, Mallorca, and Berlin.

The history of the Menghe current is relevant to anyone interested in the development of Chinese medicine in late imperial and modern China. This book traces Chinese medical history along the currents created by generations of physicians linked to each other by a shared heritage of learning, by descent and kinship, by sentiments of native place as well as nationalist fervor, by personal rivalries and economic competition, by the struggle for the survival of tradition and glorious visions of a new global medicine.

On the level of both theory and practice, this history marks a departure from the focus on texts and ideas that has dominated Western engagement with Chinese medicine to date. Its goal is to locate medicine within the concrete lives of physicians and their patients, restoring an agency to their actions that easily gets lost in our search for the forces or structures that shape historical process. To this end, the author interweaves social history and medical case studies, ethnography and biography to narrate a story of Chinese medicine that is very different from any that has been told before.

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Customer Reviews (view all) : Average Rating 5

, Rated: 5


Volker Scheid's book "Current of Tradition in Chinese Medicine" is an extraordinary scholarly text that provides a fascinating insight into an influential medical tradition in China. Every page is full of extremely interesting material both from a "political" and clinical point of view. Volker takes the reader on a fascinating journey of medical history through the Qing dynasty, the Republic of China and the People's Republic.

, Rated: 5

Currents of Tradition in Chinese Medicine 1626-2006

This latest text by Volker Scheid, like his previous work, “Chinese Medicine in Contemporary China” fills a unique niche in Chinese medical literature. At first glance, it presents itself as the history of a particular lineage, the Menghe current, from its origins in the latter days of the Ming dynasty (15th century C.E.) to the modern era. But there is a lot more going on in the text than just a historical record. As a medical anthropologist, Volker is using the tool of historical biography to unravel a much more complex design. I would like to give my own personal impression of the text to illustrate this.

One of Volker’s points in both of his texts is that in exploring the classical medicine of a foreign culture, we have missed the original context to a large degree, and redefined the medicine in the mirror image of Western culture and biomedicine. This has happened largely because of a lack of context to the transmission of Chinese medicine. There are huge cultural, historic and linguistic barriers that make it difficult to grasp Chinese medicine in its true depth, because these factors are essential in order to understand such a complex, essential subject to human life. From the Chinese perspective, there is a desire to spread ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine” to the West and redefine it as a global medicine with as little cultural baggage as possible. The crux of the argument in “Currents of Tradition” is that the practice of medicine is more than learning patterns, herbal and point prescriptions. One needs to grasp the culture and language that informs Chinese medicine, and through that learn the theoretical foundations of the subject. According to Paul Unschuld, this is what distinguishes a physician from a technician in the medical field rather than being manipulated through a lack of knowledge of context and history, one can use the history and philosophy of medicine to be creative with the subject.

One of the central figures in this book is Fei Boxiong (1800-1879), a scholar physician who was one of the great lights of the Fei medical family and its lineage. Volker carefully examines his medical philosophy and mode of practice, including a few case histories in order to illustrate his work. Fei built his practice on a careful synthesis of classical sources such as the Shang Han Lun, Ling Shu and Su Wen, along with the Jin-Yuan scholar physicians such as Li Dongyuan and Zhu Danxi. He then transcended his sources through creatively going beyond those sources to respond to the specific patient and their needs through “awakening of the mind”, or spontaneous insight.

Many of the scholar physicians discussed in the texts had a methodology that is, in my opinion, broader and more creative than just determining a pattern and dispensing an herbal prescription. According to the scholar physician Shen Kuo (12th century), ancient physicians would “regulate the patients (mode of) dress, rationalize diet, change living habilts, and follow the transformation of emotions, treating sometimes according to environmental factors, sometimes according to individual factors” (page 43).

From examining the lineages of scholar physicians, Volker goes on to examine the transformation of Chinese medicine in the modern era, from the late Qing dynasty to the Republican era, and on to the ascension of the Communist party. All of these were part of a turbulent upheaval of modernization in Chinese society, and these pressures effected the practice of medicine as well. Not only did modern science ascend to being the standard-bearer of Chinese society, but biomedicine also became the most powerful system of influence in medicine. “Currents of Tradition” examines these trends in detail, which led to the loss of much of what scholar physicians held dear in the drive towards a nationalized system of Chinese medicine, followed by the attempted globalization of this medicine and its spread to the West and the rest of the world.

"Currents of Tradition" illustrates that historically Chinese medicine was based on transmission of teaching and experience within families, in specific locales. Like Chinese cuisine, there were regional flavors, styles and philosophies that were revealed in the praxis of these scholar/physicians. Their way of life, personalities, and philosophies were integrated with their methods of diagnosis and treatment. As a result, Chinese medicine is truly heterogeneous, made up of multiple streams of thought and practice, hardly monolithic in any sense.

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