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Traditional Medicine in Modern China

January 29, 2010

Ralph C. Croizier. Traditional Medicine in Modern China: Science, Nationalism and the Tensions of Cultural Change. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Chris Hess (2000)

For Croizier, an examination of the medical field in China from the late Ch’ing through the Communist victory reveals a paradox. On the one hand, intellectuals during this period increasingly came to accept the need for the application of Western science in China’s modernization efforts (p.2). Yet many of these same intellectuals upheld China’s ancient medical tradition. To explain this Croizier examines the tensions modern Chinese intellectuals faced as they dealt with the conflict between Western and Chinese medicine. Croizier focuses on medicine because he sees it as unique among the scientific and technical fields in that it is part hard science and part social science (p.6). While science was relatively free of such “East-West” comparisons, he argues that with its long history in China, medicine became a contested area among those who wanted to preserve Chinese indigenous tradition against foreign encroachment (p.5). As he traces this conflict and the intellectual reaction to it from the cultural nationalism and May Fourth iconoclasm of the Republican period to the CCP’s attempts to use traditional medicine for ideological purposes, he illuminates key aspects of modern Chinese thought within their shifting historical contexts (p.209).

Croizier finds the first recognition of the value of Western medicine to late Ch’ing reformers such as Liang Ch’i-ch’ao, who were concerned with national survival in a social-Darwinian context (p.59). Without better medicine, such reformers argued, the Chinese race could not strengthen itself. These reformers called for a synthesis along the pattern “Western for the external medicine and Chinese for the internal medicine” (p.66). Intellectuals of the May Fourth period also emphasized the importance of medicine. However, as they stressed the universality and importance of science such intellectuals saw no value in traditional Chinese medicine and its “unscientific” practices (p.75).

Croizier argues that faced with such rejections of traditional culture, modern cultural conservatives, under the slogan “national medicine” attempted to preserve and protect traditional medicine. Building on work done by his mentor, Joseph Levenson, Croizier sees this as part of a process of cultural nationalism. These intellectuals accepted the need for modernization on the one hand, yet in order to maintain a Chinese national identity exalted traditional elements of Chinese culture (p.100). In making this argument reviewers praise Croizier for his sensitivity to the progressiveness of this process (Furth, JAS 28.3:606). Advocates of “national medicine” accepted science, and tried to find ways to use it to assert value to traditional medicine (p.230).

Croizier finds similar themes regarding traditional medicine in the new social-political context of CCP rule. While early Marxists called for a more radical embrace of scientific medicine, this was replaced in practice by a pragmatism that recognized the need for traditional medicine as CCP base areas struggled to make do with what little they had (p. 153). Croizier argues that at the medical level, CCP policy stressed a synthesis and developmental pattern similar to that called for by advocates of “national medicine” twenty years earlier. This use of the old to build and reform a new medicine changed in 1954, however, as the Party began to use traditional medicine as part of an attempt to carry out thought reform among medical professionals. Such a group exemplified the “red” versus “expert” problem the CCP faced. For these specialists, their ideological errors were seen as their denunciation of traditional Chinese medicine (p.172). The Great Leap Forward’s emphasis on the mass line further pushed traditional medicine to the front of CCP medical policy, and doctors were expected to study these techniques as part of an ongoing process of developing a Communist consciousness (p.185). Again, Croizier illuminates the intersection of traditional medicine with the intellectual issues in a given historical context. By conceiving the interplay between traditional Chinese medicine and modern Western medicine as an intellectual issue rather than a purely medical one, he is able to touch upon several key themes in modern Chinese intellectual history.

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