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A Review of Volker Scheid's Chinese Medicine in Contemporary China: Plurality and Synthesis

by Bob Flaws, Dipl. Ac. & C.H., Lic.Ac., FNAAOM, FRCHM

Volker Scheid's new book, Chinese Medicine in Contemporary China: Plurality and Synthesis, is a hugely significant read for anyone interested in the practice and development of Chinese medicine during the last hundred years. For those who may not know Volker, he is a German-born practitioner of Chinese medicine as well as a medical anthropologist at the University of London. While many acupuncturists might find this book is a somewhat difficult read due to its academic jargon, I believe it is well worth the effort. This book is the clearest and most complete explanation I have read of the various factors influencing the development of Chinese medicine in Republican, Maoist, Dengist, and contemporary China. If I were going to teach a class in the history of Chinese medicine, this book definitely would be assigned reading. Since its publication, there is no longer any excuse for much of the mythological thinking about Chinese medicine current in the West.

Volker's central premise is that the development of Chinese medicine in China is and always has been a multifactorial process which cannot be reduced to any of the simplistic assumptions commonly bandied about by modernist anthropologists and Western practitioners of Chinese medicine alike. Essentially, this is postmodernist complexity theory applied to the ethnography of Chinese medicine (with dollops of Yi Jing and the Buddhist theory of codependent origination thrown in). As such, it appears to be cutting edge social science. Volker attempts to elucidate the complex variety of factors that affect the practice and development of Chinese medicine through a series of "case histories." These case histories deal with the bi-directional relationships of Chinese medicine and its practitioners with the Chinese government, patients, Western medicine, educational institutions, the Chinese medical literature, social networks, technology, and the marketplace. While these case histories support Volker's postmodernist thesis, they are also enlightening descriptions of the state of Chinese medicine in the People's Republic of China and what life is like for a contemporary Chinese doctor. Even though I myself have lived and studied in China, I had no idea of some of the behind-the-scenes factors influencing why Chinese doctors do and say the things they do. Likewise, even though I myself read Chinese, Volker's erudition in the Chinese medical literature is extraordinary.

As Volker himself counsels, non-anthropological readers may want to skip Part 1 which presents Volker's theory of codependent origination. However, Part 2 on the state of contemporary Chinese medicine and Part 3 on the future of Chinese medicine are more than worth the price of this book. Anyone terminally attached to their current assumptions about contemporary Chinese medicine should probably not read this book, but, for anyone interested in a mature, complex, but thoroughly human and humane discussion of Chinese medicine, this book is a true eye-opener.

Publisher: Duke University Press
Place of publication: Durham, NC
Binding: Perfectbound; matte, coated cover stock; acid-free paper
Pages: 407
Illustrations: Black & white photos and antique Chinese medical blockprints
ISBN (paperback): 0-8223-2972-0
Price: $23.95 Hardback version available.
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