Needles, Herbs, Gods and Ghosts: China, Healing, and the West to 1848
Linda Barnes Published by Harvard University Press, 2005. Hardback, 458 Pages, £31.95
(Reviewed by Jasmine Uddin, EJOM Vol. 5 No. 3)
Most of us know that looking at the world from a standpoint devoid of personal, cultural, religious or political bias is not a realistic endeavour, yet we are far more able than our predecessors were to contextualise information available to us. Research tools are more sophisticated, scholarship more widespread and worldwide travel, both literally and in front of a computer, increasingly accessible to all of us. The latter does not wipe out bias or make us less likely to see what we want to see, but they help.
Now imagine being a sixty-five year old Franciscan friar despatched by Pope Innocent IV in 1245 to carry two bulls to Chinggis’s (Genghis) grandson Guyuk? How did he conceptualise what he saw? What image of this world did he convey back to his countrymen who were for the most part unable to verify with their own eyes what he saw, and who could not differentiate Mongol from Chinese?
Or being one of the eight hundred or so missionaries in China between 1552 and 1795 writing reports for their orders and also sometimes for wider audiences.
How were Chinese healing practices interpreted through the eyes of western physicians steeped in Galen’s humoral theory and against the backdrop of the increasing importance ascribed to anatomy?
It is difficult enough for us to unravel the cultural overlays of our own prejudices and preconceptions let alone imagine what these are from different historical periods and cultures, yet Linda Barnes does an admirable job in doing just that.
Needles, Herbs, Gods and Ghosts is an impressive scholarly journey into how westerners encountering new peoples unfamiliar to them made sense of the equally unfamiliar concepts these peoples had of healing and illness.
As the author points out, this is not a book about the history of Chinese medicine but rather a history of cross-cultural interactions: ‘Responses to Chinese healing were repeatedly shaped by Western anatomical models and a dynamic tradition of vitalism. Western observers routinely misunderstood the practices they witnessed, even when reporting them with considerable accuracy. Their translations introduced distortions and false equations. They selectively appropriated pieces of Chinese practice, and then rewrote them. It is useful to ask: Why these particular misunderstandings?’
In order to answer this question the book is divided into five time periods. Barnes admits that this division is Eurocentric but justifies this because this is a study of western perceptions and responses.
Chapter 1 begins with ‘the period corresponding to the despatching of Christian emissaries to investigate potential consequences for Europe from thirteenth century Mongol expansion’, and who provide us with some of the earliest accounts of Chinese healing practices.
Chapter 2 starts in 1492 with ‘European expeditions to Asia and the Americas and continues until 1659’. with observers sending back detailed reports to Europe on all aspects of culture, including comparing Chinese materia medica with European ones.
Chapter 3 covers the period from 1660-1736, during which time western authors produced detailed studies of Chinese pulse theory, acupuncture and moxibustion, and increasing numbers of writers in Europe who had never been to China writing about Chinese practices, based on sources sent by firsthand observers. The chapter ends with one of the great compendia of China reports ‘The General History of China’ (1735) by Fr. Jean-Baptists Du Halde, which includes discussions of many dimensions of Chinese healing.
Chapter 4 takes us from 1757 to 1804, a period that saw, against the broader backdrop of a European fascination with things Chinese, new discussions of Chinese practices. Also, as it was no longer required to trade with the Far East through the British East India Company, the United States entered the China trade, providing the first reports from American observers.
Finally, Chapter 5 covers the first half of the nineteenth century from 1805 to 1848 and looks at Chinese representations produced in both Europe and the US, prior to the beginning of major Chinese immigration to the US and elsewhere.
Needles, Herbs, Gods and Ghosts is a scholarly work (the bibliography alone runs to 62 pages) and is replete with quotations from the many texts and reports written by missionaries, traders, diplomats and botanists who travelled to China over the five hundred years covered by the book. As Barnes herself points out the writers she draws from were involved in racialising, religionising and medicalising the Chinese, and their reports regularly contained aspects of all three.
What is amazing about reading this book is to discover how much information there was in the West about Chinese healing practices between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries and how comprehensive it was. The discourse is nothing short of fascinating, not only for its historical value (I learned so much) but particularly as it informs and illumines, and sometimes even mirrors, our own fascination with Chinese medicine in the present and the debates we continue to have with each other and with sceptics in the western medical world.
As part of our education and as a way of ‘placing’ ourselves in our own historical period, Needles, Herbs, Gods and Ghosts deserves to be on our bookshelves, as a tool to help us unravel our own cultural baggage and to appreciate the complexity of cultural exchange where concepts on both sides of a discourse are continually changing as a result of the interchange.
The book is so rich that to highlight various sections as particularly important would be a reflection more of my own mind-set than a representation of the overall endeavour, which is to outline the scope and variety of responses and perceptions informed by different historical contexts and imperatives.
It is not an ‘easy’ read, as is the case with most heavily referenced works, but it is well worth the effort.
Jasmine Uddin Jasmine Uddin has been in practice for 25 years and has been Editor of the European Journal of Oriental Medicine since 1994. Her first degree was in sociology and a sociological perspective informs her understanding of Chinese medicine. She is currently President Emeritus of the British Acupuncture Council and is Chair of its Education Committee.