Making Chinese Medicine through Transnational Frames


Book Pages: 256 Illustrations: 7 illustrations, 1 map Published: November 2009

Author: Mei Zhan

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies > East Asia, Science and Technology Studies

Traditional Chinese medicine is often portrayed as an enduring system of therapeutic knowledge that has become globalized in recent decades. In Other-Worldly, Mei Zhan argues that the discourses and practices called “traditional Chinese medicine” are made through, rather than prior to, translocal encounters and entanglements. Zhan spent a decade following practitioners, teachers, and advocates of Chinese medicine through clinics, hospitals, schools, and grassroots organizations in Shanghai and the San Francisco Bay Area. Drawing on that ethnographic research, she demonstrates that the everyday practice of Chinese medicine is about much more than writing herbal prescriptions and inserting acupuncture needles. “Traditional Chinese medicine” is also made and remade through efforts to create a preventive medicine for the “proletariat world,” reinvent it for cosmopolitan middle-class aspirations, produce clinical “miracles,” translate knowledge and authority, and negotiate marketing strategies and medical ethics.

Whether discussing the presentation of Chinese medicine at a health fair sponsored by a Silicon Valley corporation, or how the inclusion of a traditional Chinese medicine clinic authenticates the “California” appeal of an upscale residential neighborhood in Shanghai, Zhan emphasizes that unexpected encounters and interactions are not anomalies in the structure of Chinese medicine. Instead, they are constitutive of its irreducibly complex and open-ended worlds. Zhan proposes an ethnography of “worlding” as an analytic for engaging and illuminating emergent cultural processes such as those she describes. Rather than taking “cultural difference” as the starting point for anthropological inquiries, this analytic reveals how various terms of difference—for example, “traditional,” “Chinese,” and “medicine”—are invented, negotiated, and deployed translocally. Other-Worldly is a theoretically innovative and ethnographically rich account of the worlding of Chinese medicine.


Other-Worldly eloquently shows the elusiveness of the “essence” or “authenticity” of traditional Chinese medicine…In tackling TCM’s globalization, knowledge production, and the politics of difference involved, Mei Zhan convincingly demonstrates the fluidity of TCM as a body of knowledge and a system of practice….This thoughtful book can be recommended to all students of history and anthropology of Chinese medicine and will also be enjoyed by nonspecialists.” — Angela Ki Che Leung, Isis

Other-Worldly deconstructs some of the most foundational dualisms in a number of fields. . . . Other-Worldly offers deep insights into the intimacies and techniques through which global connections are imagined and forged.” — Timothy Choy, American Ethnologist

“A precious addition to medical anthropology, China studies, and globalization studies. Highly recommended.” — A. Y. Lee, Choice

“Anyone who thinks about the deeper meanings of China’s multi-layered engagement with the world should read this book, if only to grapple with the larger questions of what is knowledge and what the world may look like, as Chinese norms cross porous borders, both real and imagined.” — James Flowers, The China Journal

“I find Other-Worldly the best of the recent ethnographies of TCM for classroom use. Mei Zhan’s interest in the transnational situation of TCM beautifully depicts this system of medicine as thoroughly untraditional and deeply subject to whims that are neither Chinese nor originating in China. Additionally, as an anthropologist of the United States and of science and medicine, I am particularly interested in the possibilities which Zhan’s book suggests for future research on the transnational conditions of medicine and its many forms. . . . Other-Worldly helps to push discussions in the anthropology of medicine into important directions, and raises questions that demand our attention, as anthropologists and as scholars of medicine in its many forms and its translocal contexts of practice.” — Matthew Wolf-Meyer, Somatosphere

“This is a book that rewards the critical and thoughtful engagement of its reader. It is worth your time and that of your graduate students.”
— Carla Nappi, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Other-Worldly is accomplished, theoretically rich, and a pleasure to read. The inclusion of both San Francisco and Shanghai, the use of anthropological and feminist studies of science, and the focus on Chinese medicine ‘in action’ are particularly significant. Moreover, Mei Zhan achieves a marvelous balance between astute observation, her own experience, and the relational dimensions that emerge out of that experience.” — Linda L. Barnes, author of Needles, Herbs, Gods, and Ghosts: China, Healing, and the West to 1948

Other-Worldly is brilliant. It is a strong intervention into fields including China studies, medical anthropology, science studies, and studies of globalization. At the cutting edge of social theory, this theoretically dazzling ethnography argues that worlding is an ongoing process of encounters and displacements and translocality is a defining feature of traditional Chinese medicine rather than ancillary to it. Other-Worldly transposes questions of authenticity onto historically specific imaginations of the world and Chinese medicine’s place in it.” — Lisa Rofel, author of Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality, and Public Culture


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Mei Zhan is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface and Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

Part One. Entanglements

1. Get on Track with the World 31

2. Hands, Hearts, and Dreams 63

Part Two. Negotiations

3. Does It Take a Miracle? 91

4. Translating Knowledges 119

Part Three. Dislocations

5. Engendering Families and Knowledges, Sideways 145

6. Discrepant Distances 175

Epilogue 195

Notes 203

References 217

Index 229
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4384-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4363-9
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