Currents of Tradition in Chinese Medicine 1626-2006
1st edition, 2007, Eastland Press, Seattle USA, paperback.
85 photos and illustrations, 564 pages, price $39.95
(Reviewed by Olga Fedina, EJOM Vol. 5 No. 5)
This book is about the history of Chinese medicine and its development in China from the 17th century to our time, against a changing socio-economic and philosophical background. It is about tradition: what makes a tradition, how it is kept alive and how it dies; how it is inherited, remembered and reconfigured in a modern state. It is about the relationship of Chinese medicine with the past and with the future.
But this book is also about something else.
Dr Volker Scheid, practitioner of Chinese medicine and a senior research fellow at the School of Integrated Health (University of Westminster, London) takes us through the historic context in which so-called Menghe medicine grew and flourished. The town of Menghe in the late Imperial era produced many famous physicians and became the epicentre of the development of Chinese medicine.
With a few brush strokes, the author draws very human portraits of legendary physicians. Comparing family legends with documentary sources, he tells stories of individual physicians and their particular styles, and how these styles developed into currents of Chinese medical tradition. He analyses how, from the late Imperial era through to the period of the republic and still today, acclaimed practitioners of Chinese medicine engaged with this tradition. The book is illustrated with portraits of physicians and charts of key events in the lives of particular medical families and the development of Chinese medicine in general.
The author defines the rationale for his book thus: ‘For the moment, the tensions between attachment to universal science on the one hand and Chinese nationalism on the other have been resolved by the unique constitution of the Chinese health-care system. However, as the globalisation of TCM has gathered pace, the fragility of this compromise is exposed to the demands of world markets that will most certainly be less accommodating to such localism. This, I believe, makes the present an ideal moment for examining once again the status of Chinese medicine as tradition – albeit with a more critical eye on the fact that tradition itself is a term laden with history.’
Well, some of the more practically-minded individuals who practise Chinese medicine/acupuncture might say, this is all very well, but it is best left to historians and other academics.
The relevance of this book to all those practising Chinese medicine is that it is not only about history. It is also about freedom. It is not by chance that the author chose for one of the epigraphs a quotation from Milan Kundera: ‘The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’
With universities offering degrees in TCM and acupuncture, we see ourselves as the highest qualified generation of TCM practitioners. The fact that acupuncture and Chinese medicine have become increasingly mainstream and widely used in the West is gratifying. We like to look forward, write business plans and think how to build a thriving practice. But we rarely look backwards. Where do we stand in this tradition that spans millennia? And most importantly, do we have enough knowledge of our roots to be free and creative in what we are doing? To choose our own path at the same time as belonging to that collective knowledge that upholds and supports us?
We are lucky to have had pioneers who have gone out to China and done the admirable work of translating and consolidating Chinese medical knowledge for our use. However, should we be satisfied merely with the knowledge that is most readily available?
Fei Boxiong, an acclaimed 19th century physician, gives the following description of an outstanding doctor: ‘Being sure where others are uncertain’.
‘…Such certainty’, says Scheid, ‘did not come from matching symptoms and signs with a prescription, or diagnosing a disease that was then treated with the appropriate formula. It meant to practice the art of medicine: to learn from all the different currents of the tradition, to adjust one’s perspective repeatedly until everything fits into place and a cure becomes possible.’ (p. 327)
Another famous doctor who practised in Maoist China, Cheng Menxue, said: ‘You must enter [Chinese medicine] via all the different schools [of thought] and then leave them behind. Grasp their quintessence and merge them into one single treatment [strategy that is appropriate to the presenting condition].’ (p. 328)
Is it acceptable for practitioners not even to be aware of individual styles and currents of Chinese medicine, and can a personal style be developed without referring to what has gone before?
As I was reading Volker Scheid’s book, I was reminded of an episode in a novel by the Russian-Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov, The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years. This work includes a parable about what happens when people forget their origins, ancestry and past.
Aitmatov draws on an ancient Turkic legend about a cruel way of making a captured enemy forget his past so as to turn him into a perfect slave, a so-called mankurt. A cap of a raw camel skin would be put on the man’s shaven head, and he would then be left in the desert with his hands tied for several days. Drying out, the cap would shrink and bind to the prisoner’s head. Those one or two out of five that survived the torture would turn into mankurts – slaves without any memory of their past – not their family, nor their childhood, nor where they came from. The reason it was worth it for the captors to go to all this trouble was that mankurt was a perfect slave, worth ten normal slaves, without a shade of a thought of disobedience.
Reading Volker Scheid’s narrative about those Chinese physicians that went before, whose names will be new to many, the thought comes to mind: is our generation of practitioners in danger of becoming mankurts, slaves without memory of where we belong?
This book by Volker Scheid fills an important gap. There are few works available on the history of Chinese medicine, the development of the Chinese medical tradition and the transmission of medical knowledge in China. It is an essential point of reference for any practitioner of Chinese medicine who wants to reach beyond the narrow circle of knowledge acquired in the course of gaining a professional qualification, and who wants at least to try to connect with his or her ‘ancestors’.
It is also relevant to all those involved in the field because it reveals the fragility of Chinese medical tradition, something we might not have suspected or thought about. It is as fragile as memory itself. And thus we have the responsibility of keeping it alive.
Olga Fedina is originally from Moscow, where she trained as a journalist and worked for the Moscow Times in the turbulent post-Soviet period. After moving to London in 1996 she qualified as an acupuncturist, gaining her BSc at the London College of Traditional Acupuncture. She is a member of the Fundacion Europea de Medicina Tradicional China and is on the editorial committee of the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC). Since 2006 Olga has been living and working in Valencia in Spain, where she has established the Centro de Yoga, Pilates y Acupuntura and collaborates with the Instituto Valenciano de Infertilidad (IVI).