Medicine on the Silk Road
2015-11-19 12:21:18

The Globalization of Chinese Medicine (Past and Present)


China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative launched by the Chinese president Xi Jinping in September 2013 will provide new opportunities for medical cooperation along the new Silk Road. The promotion of Traditional Chinese medicine will certainly be part of China’s strategy to strengthen its cultural influence in these regions. The globalization of traditional Chinese medicine is a nationwide strategy particularly because the acquisition of Chinese medical knowledge, and the practice and consumption of Chinese medicine in foreign countries have become extremely heterogeneous. The standardization and regulation of Chinese medicine have therefore acquired a new urgency for the Chinese government with the establishment of standards that China is trying to promote internationally. Clinical (or tacit knowledge) poses particularly several challenges to this standardization process for it is a form of knowledge difficult to record by means of written texts. Administering acupuncture needles, for example, requires specific skills to locate accurately the acupuncture points on the patient’s body, to insert a needle and to manipulate it to either tonify or disperse the qi. Since the ancient times, the Chinese classics have advised frequently the practitioner against a needle wrongly inserted, for it could cause bleeding, damage the tissues or the internal organs, and even have more dramatic consequences for the patient. For example, Wang Tao王燾 (670-755), the author of the Waitai miyaofang 外台秘要方 and a fervent advocate of moxibustion, strongly opposed acupuncture for it could kill a man. Tacit knowledge is not, however, particular to acupuncture practice. Other parts of Chinese medicine practice, particularly the diagnosis process, which includes the pulse, tongue and abdominal diagnosis, require ‘bodily skills’ developed through clinical experience or under the supervision of a teacher rather than solely from the study of texts. The aim of this research project is to inquire about the ways these non-codified forms of Chinese medical knowledge have circulated since the beginning of the early modern period (circa 1500), first, at a regional level (within East Asia), and second, at a global level.