Chinese Medicine in Contemporary China

Plurality and Synthesis

Chinese Medicine in Contemporary China

Science and Cultural Theory

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Book Pages: 432 Illustrations: 43 illustrations Published: June 2002

Author: Volker Scheid

Asian Studies > East Asia, Medicine and Health, Science and Technology Studies

As a traditional healing art that has established a contemporary global presence, Chinese medicine defies categories and raises many interesting questions. If Chinese medicine is "traditional," why has it not disappeared with the rest of traditional Chinese society? If, as some claim, it is a science, what does that imply about what we call science? What is the secret of Chinese medicine's remarkable adaptability that has allowed it to prosper for more than 2,000 years? In Chinese Medicine in Contemporary China Volker Scheid presents an ethnography of Chinese medicine that seeks to answer these questions, but his ethnography is informed by some atypical approaches.
Scheid, a medical anthropologist and practitioner of Chinese medicine in practice since 1983, has produced an ethnography that accepts plurality as an intrinsic and nonreducible aspect of medical practice. It has been widely noted that a patient visiting ten different practitioners of Chinese medicine may receive ten different prescriptions for the same complaint, yet many of these various treatments may be effective. In attempting to illuminate the plurality in Chinese medical practice, Scheid redefines-and in some cases abandons-traditional anthropological concepts such as tradition, culture, and practice in favor of approaches from disciplines such as science and technology studies, social psychology, and Chinese philosophy. As a result, his book sheds light not only on Chinese medicine but also on the Western academic traditions used to examine it and presents us with new perspectives from which to deliberate the future of Chinese medicine in a global context.
Chinese Medicine in Contemporary China is the product of two decades of research including numerous interviews and case studies. It will appeal to a western academic audience as well as practitioners of Chinese medicine and other interested medical professionals, including those from western biomedicine.


“[A] hugely significant read for anyone interested in the practice and development of Chinese medicine during the last hundred years. . . . This book is the clearest and most complete explanation I have read of the various factors influencing the development of Chinese medicine in Republican, Maoist, Dengist, and contemporary China. If I were going to teach a class in the history of Chinese medicine, this book definitely would be assigned reading. Since its publication, there is no longer any excuse for much of the mythological thinking about Chinese medicine current in the West. . . . [F]or anyone interested in a mature, complex, but thoroughly human and humane discussion of Chinese medicine, this book is a true eye-opener.” — Bob Flaws , Pulse of Alternative Medicine

“This is a work of great ambition, far transcending medicine. . . . This epistemology yields a rich harvest. . . . This book, by its frankness and its independence of philosophic fashion, will jolt some readers into examining their presuppositions. We can do with fewer pious reaffirmations of the conventional wisdom. . . . This is, to sum up, a book of the utmost historic, ethnographic, and practical importance.” — Nathan Sivin , China Review International

"[A] brilliant reflection on the dynamic complexity of contemporary Chinese medicine. . . . [O]ne of the best of a wave of new studies on Chinese medicine that are sure to change the field." — Philip S. Sho , Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences

"[A]ll readers, but particularly practitioners, will be richly rewarded in terms of an increase in their personal understanding of who they are, what they represent in the continuum of Chinese medicine, and what internal beliefs and outside forces continue to guide and shape their practice and own use of both western and Chinese medicines." — Velia Wortman , Deutsche Zeitschrift für Akupunktur

"[N]uanced and thorough. . . . This practice-oriented history and ethnography does an excellent job of coping with subtlety and complexity and avoiding essentialisms and dichotomies. Yet more than being simply another critique of essentialism, Scheid's emphasis on fundamental plurality is a novel perspective and merits continuing attention. It is surely applicable to other medical systems . . . and may prove to be a useful approach to cultural practices outside the world of medicine and science." — Murphy Halliburton , American Anthropologist

"[T]he earlier chapters are brought to life by the clear and concise case studies that Scheid has provided. Scheid’s book could provide useful readings for medical anthropology students." — John Gill , Anthropology Review Database

"At least four distinct groups of readers will find this book valuable: preventive-health professionals, anthropologists, historians of science and technology, and public-policy professionals." — Wenjing Wan , China Review International

"There is no doubt that Scheid's work has altered the face of anthropological research into Chinese medicine." — Vivenne Lo , Medical History

"Volker Scheid offers a rich, clear, and detailed account of contemporary Chinese medicine as intrinsically pluralistic and dispersed, dynamic and local. . . . This volume brings theoretical approaches derived from science studies to bear on the anthropology of Chinese medicine and illustrates the benefits that can be derived from them. Perhaps even more importantly, its case studies will allow scholars access to the rich texture and complexity of medicine in China, and render them available for interpretation across disciplinary boundaries." — Roberta Bivins, Technology and Culture

“Volker Scheid reveals the dynamic context of Chinese medicine and its continuous process of encounter, interpretation, negotiation, and synthesis. This study’s depth of detail and breathtaking interdisciplinary scope provide a multidimensional understanding of Chinese medicine and the forces that nourish, constrain, and transform it. Any serious scholar or practitioner will want to read and reread this groundbreaking volume.” — Ted J. Kaptchuk, author of The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine

“Volker Scheid’s book is a seriously original work. One of its great strengths is Scheid’s refusal to see Chinese medicine as either unitary or centred. He insists on its plurality, with incursions of Western biomedicine as just more elements within an already multiple field of medical practices. The other great strength is Scheid’s refusal to see medicine as static. He brings to the fore the creative interplay between Chinese and Western traditions, the dynamism that can emerge in the intersection of radically disparate techniques, remedies, and conceptual schemes. Along the way, Scheid develops a fascinating epistemology and ontology of agency, human and nonhuman, that makes sense of the plurality and syntheses that he confronts us with. This is a path-breaking book—one that could be a model for future work in the history of medicine and in cultural studies at large.” — Andrew Pickering, University of Illinois


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Volker Scheid is Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in the Department of History, School of Oriental and African Studies, at the University of London.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Figures and Tables


Timeline on Chinese History

Geographical Map of China


Part I: Chinese Medicine and the Problem of Plurality

1. Orientations

2. Plurality and Synthesis: Toward a Multisited Ethnography of Chinese Medicine

Part II: Contemporary Chinese Medicine: Six Perspectives

3. Hegemonic Pluralism: Chinese Medicine in a Socialist State

4. Dilemmas and Tactical Agency: Patients and the Transformation of Chinese Medicine

5. Shaping Chinese Medicine: Integration, Innovation, Synthesis

6. Students, Disciples, and the Art of Social Networking: Becoming a Physician of Chinese Medicine

7. Bianzheng lunzhi: The Emergent Pivot of Contemporary Chinese Medicine

8. Creating Knowledge: The Origins of Plurality

Part III: Anthropological Interventions

9. The Future of Chinese Medicine

Appendix. Four Attempts at Systematizing Pattern Differentiation and Treatment Determination


Bibliography of Premodern Chinese Medical Texts

Bibliography of Modern Chinese and Western Sources

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2872-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2857-5
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