Chinese Medicine in Contemporary China: Plurality and Synthesis
Volker Scheid Duke University Press 2002 Paperback, 407 pages, £18.50 $23.95 (Hardback £54.00 $69.95)
(Reviewed by Velia Wortman, EJOM Vol. 4 No. 3)
From 1994 to 1999, scholar–physician Volker Scheid carried out ethnographic fieldwork mainly in Beijing, where he was able to observe and record the outcomes of more than 4000 Chinese medicine treatment episodes in a wide variety of settings ranging from large university hospitals to small private practices.
Scheid set out to present evidence for 'plurality as an intrinsic aspect of contemporary Chinese medicine,' 'plurality' as 'nothing else than a term denoting the way things always are forever changing and transforming origins in the whirpool of their simultaneously present pasts and futures.' In doing so, Scheid succeeds in deconstructing our western notion of a monolithic, hegemonistic Chinese medicine, and provides us with a groundbreaking analysis of Chinese medicine 'from within'.
Chinese Medicine in Contemporary China consists of three main sections: a theoretical framework for the description and analysis of Chinese medicine; the 'ethnographies' of Chinese medicine as it is currently practised in China which the author observed and recorded; and finally, a short conclusion entitled 'The Future of Chinese Medicine'.
The ethnographies are short self-contained masterpieces of scholarly observation and practical understanding of Chinese medicine. Their Leitmotif is the history of medicine in China of the past 50 years as experienced by its practitioners. Throughout this core section of the book, the reader has a sense of Volker Scheid's respect and admiration for his 'informant-physicians', their families and their patients. Scheid's enthusiasm for the subject of his enquiry, his endless curiosity and love of both the scholarly and practical aspects of Chinese medicine are well conveyed and make for highly enjoyable reading.
I especially liked Chapter 6, 'Students, Disciples and the Art of Social Networking: Becoming a Physician of Chinese Medicine', a narrative of the lives of contemporary Chinese doctors and how history, politics, personal preference and genealogy have shaped their present practice. Equally fascinating is Chapter 5 'Shaping Chinese Medicine', in which a practitioner of integrated Chinese and western medicine (Professor Zhu) uses his knowledge of and tools from both medical traditions to create Chinese herbal prescriptions for biomedically-defined diseases such as Ménière's. Scheid's interviews of Professor Zhu provide us with valuable insights into the mind of a master, an artist skillfully and elegantly synthesising traditions and combining herbs to match clinical realities.
The first section of the book concerns itself with the development of an analytical framework. It is breathtaking in its precise analysis of social scientific models of enquiry, and of the deeper meanings underlying personal relationships and therapeutic encounters as well as the significance of the transmission of knowledge from teacher to student.
Some readers, especially those without a background knowledge of the theoretical debates surrounding contemporary social sciences, may find this first section heavy going and discouraging. However, this problem is easily solved by following the author's own clear instructions in the introduction: historians and social scientists should read the book from cover to cover; physicians and practitioners should concentrate on the ethnographies and return to the theoretical section later on.
Whatever approach is taken, all 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 Velia Wortman studied social anthropology at the University of Toronto, western biomedicine at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine in London and Chinese medicine in Germany and the Netherlands. She is currently in private practice in Nürnberg, Germany and is teaching Chinese medicine in the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Erlangen.