Georges Soulié de Morant Translated by Lawrence Grinnell, Claudy Jeanmougin, and Maurice Leveque Edited by Paul Zmiewski Paradigm Publications, Brookline, Massachusetts, 1994 Hardcover, 896 pages, $125.00
(Reviewed by Volker Scheid, EJOM Vol. 2 No. 1)
Chinese Acupuncture is the first complete translation into English of Georges Soulié de Morant’s monumental work L’Acuponcture Chinoise. On first inspection this is a manual for instructing clinicians in the practice of acumoxa therapy. Intended to bring classical Chinese medicine to the West, it has today become a classic in its own right. L’Acuponcture Chinoise is not, however, merely a clinical textbook. It is also a book about medicine and the relation between different medical traditions. And therein lies its significance to a much wider and not necessarily clinically oriented audience.
Born in Paris in 1879, Soulié de Morant was prevented from following the medical career he had chosen for himself by the early death of his father. Having learned Mandarin as a child, he went, instead, to China in 1901 in the employment of the Banque Lehideux. His linguistic abilities (he also learned Mongolian and Japanese), his knowledge of Chinese culture, and his easy familiarity with Chinese customs soon brought him to the attention of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He subsequently became a judge of the joint French court of Shanghai and later the delegate Consul of Foreign Affairs in Yunnan. In his spare time he was an erudite and prolific writer who published more than sixty books and articles on every aspect of Chinese life, from art to music, history, and literature, including biographies of the empress dowager Ci Xi and Sun Yatsen.
Soon after his arrival in China, Soulié de Morant witnessed how a Chinese physician was able to help the victims of a cholera epidemic in Beijing without recourse to Western medicine. His curiosity aroused, Soulié de Morant began to read medical texts and, with the help of the local officials, to study acupuncture under several renowned physicians. He later practiced it himself, and it is reported that Soulié de Morant’s knowledge and skills were such that he became respected by the Chinese - an unheard of accomplishment for a foreigner, then or now.
Following his return to Europe in 1917, Soulié de Morant decided to promote acupuncture in the French medical profession by publishing articles based on translations from the Chinese. He managed to attract the attention of two physicians, Drs Flandin and Martiny, and was invited to join them at their departments at the Bichat and Leopold Bellan Hospitals. This afforded him the opportunity not merely to practice, but to carry out detailed research into various aspects of acumoxa therapy.
L’Acuponcture Chinoise is the distillation of Soulié de Morant’s understanding of Chinese medicine, written on the basis of over thirty years of clinical experience and research. It was an attempt at making Chinese medicine intelligible to an audience that shared none of the familiarity with Chinese language, history, or culture that its author possessed, and in that it largely succeeded. In spite of sometimes open and bitter hostility from the medical establishment, which believed that its mission was to teach modern medicine to the East and not to learn traditional practices from China, the publication of L’Acuponcture Chinoise initiated a period of remarkable growth in the practice of acupuncture in France, where the subject is taught today as a medical specialty at universities throughout the country. In recognition of his achievements, Soulié de Morant was recommended for the Nobel Prize in 1950. A professorship was created for him in the US, which, however, he declined to accept.
Even after his death in 1955, Soulié de Morant’s influence continued to grow. Interest in acupuncture spread from France to other countries in Western Europe, and up to the mid 1980s, when an increasing number of Westerners began studying directly at colleges of Chinese medicine in the PRC (or learned from teachers who had been in China), there cannot have been many non-Asian acupuncturists in the West who had not directly or indirectly learned their skills from Soulié de Morant.
The present translation into English of L’Acuponcture Chinoise is based on the complete French edition published by Editeur Maloine in 1972. It consists of five volumes, of which only the first three (‘Energy: Points, Meridians, Circulation,’ ‘The Management of Energy,’ and ‘The Physiology of Energy’) had been published during Soulié de Morant’s lifetime. These three volumes set out in detail his interpretation of acupuncture as an energetic medicine. Volumes 4 and 5 (‘Meridians, Points, and Their Symptoms’ and ‘Illnesses and Their Treatment’) were compiled and edited posthumously by his lifelong collaborator, Dr Martiny, based on notes and manuscripts left by the author. These latter volumes represent the application of Soulié de Morant’s interpretation of Chinese medicine to the treatment of illness.
The theories and clinical instructions of L’Acuponcture Chinoise are based entirely on Chinese primary sources, especially Ming and Qing dynasty texts such as the ‘Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion’ (Zhenjiu dacheng) or the ‘Introductions to Medicine’ (Yixue rumen). Throughout L’Acuponcture Chinoise these sources are clearly referenced. This also applies to any additional information supplied by Soulié de Morant, whether this is based on his own research and clinical experience or on other Western sources. This practice alone sets the scholarship of this book apart from any comparable Western language text and sets an example that has not been matched since.1
Soulié de Morant’s aim, however, was not to merely document the theory and clinical practice of Chinese medicine. The very first sentences of L’Acuponcture Chinoise state his ultimate goal and the manner in which he decided to pursue it. ‘This book,’ he writes, ‘is not simply the translation of a Chinese text. My work consists of a structure that conforms to European logic. ...In brief, I have attempted to reveal this ancient tradition in a scientific manner.’
To anchor Chinese medicine in the European imagination, Soulié de Morant ingeniously constructed as a ‘superstructure’ (his own terminology) an energetic body that would serve as a bridge between East and West as much on the level of ideology as on the level of clinical practice. This energetic body was conceived as a highly structured organism brought to life by the function of ‘vital energy.’ Its anatomy is a hybrid that combines both Chinese and biomedical structures (the neocortex, for instance, is placed on the same level as the ‘three burner’ (sanjiao), an organ the exact nature of which has been debated among Chinese physicians ever since its existence was postulated in various canonical texts).2 Its physiology is one of energy that can accommodate the activity of vitamins and hormones as much as the directive function exerted on the body’s qi by the liver. Its pathology is one of disordered energy, and its therapy an energetic regulation by means of acupuncture and moxibustion.
The term ‘vital energy’ here is Soulié de Morant’s translation of the Chinese term qi, which he identified as the key concept of Chinese medicine. Readers should bear in mind at this point that at the beginning of the century, investigations into the structures and functions of ‘vital energy’ constituted a legitimate topic of inquiry. The vitalism that found an expression, for instance, in Bergson’s concept of an élan vitale was still very much in vogue in continental Europe when L’Acuponcture Chinoise was written, and Soulié de Morant could believe with good reason that his theories would be vindicated by future scientific research.
Even though that particular goal has proved elusive, the general contours of the project were remarkably well adapted to their purpose. Soulié de Morant’s vision of acupuncture as ‘energy medicine’ continues to dominate both the popular and professional imagination and may have been instrumental in popularising its practice in the West. A heightened awareness of potential energy crises in the environment and society easily resonates with perceived crises of energy within the human organism to which acupuncture promises to provide solutions that are not only clinically but also ideologically attractive.3
It is interesting in this respect to compare Soulié de Morant’s work with attempts at bridging the gap between Chinese and Western medicine undertaken by physicians in China. Early advocates of the merging of Chinese and Western medicine (huitong xuepai) such as Tang Zonghai (1862-1918) or Zhang Xichun (1860-1933) place remarkably little emphasis on constructing whole new systems in the manner of Soulié de Morant. They proceed toward integration by way of a piecemeal process that achieves convergence where it is possible and postpones it where it is not. In contemporary China, the integration of Chinese and Western medicine (zhongxiyi jiehe) has been promoted on a wide front for some time now. No grand synthesis has yet been achieved, however, and no master plan seems to exist that would guide the work of all modern innovators.4
We thus might credit Soulié de Morant with having succeeded where the Chinese themselves have failed. Given that he never forces Chinese medicine into a biomedical straitjacket, whereas the Chinese themselves seem prepared, all too often, to sacrifice the integrity of traditional medicine if that means it can be aligned with biomedical rationality, Soulié de Morant’s single-handed achievement seems even more astounding. Yet, it is exactly this apparent success that is also, it seems to me, the greatest failure of the work. If we follow the lead of recent anthropological scholarship, then Chinese medicine demands to be understood as a mode of practice that admits to diversity and multiplicity at its very core.5 Any such understanding is foreclosed when one sees it, instead, as a conceptual system that mirrors the real structure of the body itself.
In spite of its erudition and scholarship, Soulié de Morant’s L’Acuponcture Chinoise thus remains tied to an orientalism that accords value to Chinese thought only if it can be suitably transformed to fit in with a ‘European logic’ of total structures and one-to-one representations.
L’Acuponcture Chinoise contains factual errors (such as the dating of the Neijing to the second millennium BC), logical inconsistencies (the idea, for instance, that Chinese medicine was already complete in Neolithic times, but then developed throughout the following six thousand years), and disputable theories (such as the relation of various energetic functions to the activity of different parts of the brain). All these are forgivable shortcomings in an otherwise exceedingly fine accomplishment. My only real criticism of Soulié de Morant is that right from the beginning he guided the study of Chinese medicine as a clinical specialty in the West in the wrong direction. Whether critical or supportive of Chinese medicine, there are few authors in the West today ho treat it as a practice rather than a representation, and almost no clinical texts that feel at ease with its heterogeneity of styles and opinions.6
That is my view, however, written almost a century after Soulié de Morant set out on his journey to China. Given the intellectual horizons of the time, his efforts mark a distinct breakthrough in European understanding of Chinese medicine. Even today we have much to learn from L’Acuponcture Chinoise, both inside and outside the acupuncture clinic. If it is becoming increasingly necessary to commence with serious alterations to the structure of the body and of the Chinese medicine that we have inherited from its author, then that, too, is a tribute to the enduring value of this work.
Volker G Scheid Volker Scheid studied social psychology and medical anthropology at Sussex University and is currently writing a PhD thesis on different traditions of practice in Chinese medicine at the University of Cambridge. Past editor of EJOM, he has practised Chinese medicine in Eastbourne for the past eleven years
Notes/Footnotes 1 Giovanni Maciocia's The Foundations of Chinese Medicine, Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone1989), for instance, quotes most classical texts from modern Chinese sources. Manfred Porkert and Karl-Herman Hempen's Systematische Akupunktur, (Munchen: Urban and Schwarzenberg, 1986) lists classical and modern secondary sources, but does not make clear from which texts any particular piece of information is derived. Both texts also blend the authors’ personal ideas with information from Chinese texts, making it difficult to determine with certainty the sources of a particular statement.
2. Nathan Sivan. Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China, (Ann Arbor: Centre for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1987), p.120.
3. See ‘An Interview with Paul Unschuld’, European Journal of Oriental Medicine 4 (1994): 6-11.
4. This is the conclusion drawn by Nathan Sivin, Traditional Medicine, p. 198. See also Zhang Weiyao, Zhongyi de xianzai yi weilai (The present and future of Chinese medicine), (Tianjin: Tianjin Kexue Jishu Chubanshi, 1994).
5. Judith Farquhar. Knowing Practice: The Clinical Encounter in Chinese Medicine (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994), and ‘Multiplicity, Point of View, and Responsibility in Traditional Chinese Healing’, in Body, Subject and Power in China, ed. A. Zito and T. E. Barlow (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).
6. Both Maciocia and Porkert (note 1 above) follow Soulié de Morant’s lead in portraying Chinese medicine as a system. The only notable exception I have come across is Dan Bensky and Randall Barolet, Chinese Herbal Medicine: Formulas and Strategies, Seattle: Eastland Press.
Reprinted from China Review International, Vol. 3, No 1 with permission of the publisher, University of Hawaii Press (1996).