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Needles, Herbs, Gods, and Ghosts: China, Healing, and the West to 1848 [Paperback]

Linda L. Barnes

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Book Description

May 30 2007

When did the West discover Chinese healing traditions? Most people might point to the "rediscovery" of Chinese acupuncture in the 1970s. In Needles, Herbs, Gods, and Ghosts, Linda Barnes leads us back, instead, to the thirteenth century to uncover the story of the West's earliest known encounters with Chinese understandings of illness and healing. As Westerners struggled to understand new peoples unfamiliar to them, how did they make sense of equally unfamiliar concepts and practices of healing? Barnes traces this story through the mid-nineteenth century, in both Europe and, eventually, the United States. She has unearthed numerous examples of Western missionaries, merchants, diplomats, and physicians in China, Europe, and America encountering and interpreting both Chinese people and their healing practices, and sometimes adopting their own versions of these practices.

A medical anthropologist with a degree in comparative religion, Barnes illuminates the way constructions of medicine, religion, race, and the body informed Westerners' understanding of the Chinese and their healing traditions.



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Review

This monumental work weaves together erudite scholarship and enticing travelogue. Needles, Herbs, Gods, and Ghosts uncovers an entirely neglected story of how the West encountered China's religion, medicine, and healing practices. It challenges the reader to see how human beings encounter difference through the structure of their own thoughts and experiences. This informative, reflective, and path-breaking volume is indispensable for scholars in medicine, anthropology, history, religion, sinology, and ethnic studies. Also, because of Barnes's clear and lively writing style, this book is an enjoyable adventure for any curious reader. (Ted Kaptchuk, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and author of The Web that Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine)

[A] fascinating account of how China, the Chinese, and Chinese healing practices were imagined in the West from the late Middle Ages through to the mid-nineteenth century. [Barnes] has written a lively and compelling account that demonstrates that Chinese traditional medicine has a lengthy and important role in the development of medical discourse in the West. This work will serve as the starting point for the next generation of scholars. (Robert John Perrins Social History of Medicine)

Barnes has given us the first systematic account, encompassing a broad sweep of history, of the evolution of Western ideas about healing practices in China...The goals, organization, and scholarship in this book are both interesting and impressive...As a bibliographic tour-de-force it is a remarkable book that I welcome to my shelf. (William C. Summers Journal of the American Medical Association 2006-08-09)

When did the West discover Chinese healing traditions? Most people might point to the "rediscovery" of Chinese acupuncture in the 1970s. But in Needles, Herbs, Gods, and Ghosts, Linda Barnes leads us back to the 13th century. There she uncovers the neglected story of the West's earliest known encounters with Chinese religion, medicine, and healing...Needles, Herbs, Gods, and Ghosts is thoroughly academic with more than 60 pages of references; and places today's practitioners of complementary/alternative medicine into historical context. It will certainly be of value to acupuncturists and practitioners of Chinese traditional medicine who would like to know more of the history of their healing methods...A monumental work that brings together erudite scholarship and enticing travelogue. (Ted Kaptchuk British Naturopathic Journal)

If you have ever wondered how and when Chinese medicine made its way to the "West," this is the book for you. Linda Barnes, a medical anthropologist and comparative religionist, has assembled a massive compendium of sources from which she recreates the checkered story of European perceptions of and attitudes toward China and Chinese concepts of medicine from the early thirteenth century to 1848 A.D.. Needles, Herbs, Gods, and Ghosts is a tour de force and will especially please any reader with a strong historical bent and/or a deep interest in intercultural communication, particularly as it concerns medical practice. (Mary Ann Liebert Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine)

This insightful and richly documented study by Linda Barnes explores how Western conceptualizations of the healing traditions of China have historically reflected the broader cultural trends and assumptions that have shaped European and American attitudes towards Chinese civilization. Drawing upon an impressive array of writings and correspondence produced over the centuries by Western scholars, merchants, and missionaries, Barnes undertakes a chronological analysis of evolving perceptions of Chinese medicine and associated aspects of Chinese culture from the mid-thirteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries...Barnes's study of China, healing, and the West makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the complex dynamics of Sino-Western cultural relations. Her vast knowledge of the history of both Western and Chinese medicine and her comprehensive mastery of the cultural history of these contrasting civilizations provide her readers with a convincingly analyzed overview of how Westerners perceived China's healing traditions and related cultural conceptions over a period of nearly six centuries. (Michael C. Lazich Church History 2007-06-01)

Barnes has pulled together an amazing range of Western-language sources, shown in her sixty-two-page bibliography. Like the travel and exploration narratives she draws on, her account is packed with descriptions and anecdotes that flesh out the early history of European curiosity about this most remote region of the Orient...Her concern that the general reader grasp culture and context makes this book highly readable. (Charlotte Furth Isis)

This fascinating book reveals how western conceptions of religion, race and medicine have distorted images of China and its healing traditions...Barnes's approach should not only be an inspiration to all who seek to take seriously the interpretative lenses through which western culture apprehends others; but also stimulate those interested in comparative history and philosophy of medicine to appreciate the philosophical assumptions behind Chinese medicine as a distinct philosophy radically different from its western counterpart, not merely an aspect of Chinese religion, and hence to understand Chinese medicine as it was. (Kenny Can Liao Medical History 2007-04-01)

About the Author

Linda L. Barnes is Director of the Masters Program in Medical Anthropology and Cross-Cultural Practice, Division of Graduate Medical Sciences at Boston University School of Medicine. She holds a joint appointment as Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at BUSM, and in the Division of Religious and Theological Studies at Boston University.

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5.0 out of 5 stars Carefully researched and well written. Intriguing view of early encounters between two major paradigms in medical history. Feb. 4 2010
By Quadradox - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
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.

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