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Needles, Herbs, Gods, and Ghosts: China, Healing, and the West to 1848 Paperback – May 30 2007

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Carefully researched and well written. Intriguing view of early encounters between two major paradigms in medical history. Feb. 4 2010
By Quadradox - Published on
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This is a scholarly work, very organized and documented. It offers a unique perspective on the early period of Chinese and Western encounters with respect to the healing arts. It is not difficult reading, but because of the density of information it has taken me several weeks to work through it. I felt the journey was very worthwhile!!

The story is told primarily from historical documents ranging from 1245-1848, beginning with catholic priests and merchants traveling to China from Western Europe who recorded their encounters with the novel healing systems of China. These reports form a tapestry of topics and attitudes of the westerners which vary from respectful inquiry and awe to profoundly arrogant ignorance, narrow-mindedness, competitive propoganda, and perhaps intentional misrepresentation. The breadth of coverage is truly remarkable. This books provides a rare glimpse of Western European and early US medical history when the westerners were embracing an emerging concept of "real scientific methodology" with near religious fervor. The author carefully displays how the religious and intellectual needs of the west as it was moving through its own scientific infancy frequently resulted a display of intolerance toward others, including intolerance for Chinese concepts that 200 years later we would now say was clearly premature. More modern understandings of the nervous system, neural and fascial networks, neurotransmitters etc have opened plausible theories and mechanisms for some of the Chinese concepts (known by other names or metaphors). Another 200 years from now ... who knows what "obvious" truths and assumptions we will be retracting and how they will be judged through the mirror of historical research.

Needles, Herbs, Gods and Ghosts is a humbling reminder to all of us who are interested in healing more than in politics, that we need to hold a bit of skepticism about our own dominant paradigm in balance with substantially more open-minded regard for the paradigms of other people or nations. The vocabularies and metaphors may be different -- but it is just as important to recognize that changing the labels might lead to recognizing shared concepts, and create dialogue that enhances deeper understanding despite our culture gaps.

The author seems to do a thorough job, without obvious bias, of presenting the difficulties and misbehaviors of westerners trapped in the limits of their own psychological sophistication and their early concepts of medical science as they struggled to understand a vast, ancient and profoundly different culturally-based healing tradition. I wish it had been possible to not only hear the voices and misunderstandings of the westerners. I would have liked to know more about what the Chinese physicians thought of the Europeans and early US physicians. Perhaps that's another book in the making.

I particularly enjoyed the final discussions on acupuncture and well-known herbs, such as moxa and ginseng, which were employed in the US during the 1800's after trade and dialogue with China was more advanced. Without reading books such as this, one can easily come to believe that the current TCM movement born in the 1950s was actually the beginning of Chinese Medicine in the US. Here is a longer, richer and more colorful story finally documented.

One topic seems to have been omitted and I wonder why. The author reports one of strongest and most frequent western criticisms of Chinese medical training and practice. The latter were heavily insulted for refusing to do dissection -- a widely acclaimed advancement to medical science in Europe, which the author reports at times were performed publically on executed criminals, even in churches and public meeting halls (page 20)and ultimately became a critical part of required medical curriculum sometime between 1200-1300 AD. Yet, the Chinese apparently were not always completely deprived of anatomical reality -- rather their last recorded dissections were in the Song Dynasty (960-1127). Perhaps prior centuries of intermittent imperial use of "ling chi", vivisection/dissection or "death by a thousand cuts" employed for very severe crimes left the Chinese much less fascinated than the Europeans who were just then entering the dawn of their own scientific revolution. It seems there were beliefs in place so that by the 13th century Chinese culture endorsed reasons to nearly abolish dissection and dismemberment.

However, Chinese Acupuncture, a 4 volume text written by George Soulie de Morant, documents potential interactions between chinese physicians/acupuncturists and ling chi dating back to the 1100's. The Harvard University Press title, "Death by a Thousand Cuts", further documents this limited but ancient practice that is easily prone to misrepresentation and sensationalism. Nonetheless, it seems quite pausible that ancient chinese physicians attending the imperial families and courts had some chance to learn directly about relevant anatomy and physiology from these events. Knowledge that clearly was gained at a very high price, one that they were not eager to pay often, may indeed underlie some of the "wisdom" of acupuncture points that intraoperativley ease pain, bleeding, and that influence the mysterious actions of internal organs -- hard earned wisdom that seemed like crazy magic to westerners.