- Healing Powers and Modernity: Traditional Medicine, Shamanism, and Science in Asian Societies
Healing Powers and Modernity: Traditional Medicine, Shamanism, and Science in Asian Societies, edited by Linda H. Connor and Geoffrey Samuel, consists of an Introduction, by the first editor, and eleven case studies. The latter are short ethnographic studies of particular communities or healers in East and South Asian countries. All of these are well-written, detailed accounts of particular healing contexts and behaviors. Several are by first-rate veteran ethnographers, such as Laurel Kendall (writing-as usual-on Korean shamans), Mark Nichter (India), Carol Laderman (Malaya), and Geoffrey Samuel (Tibet). Others are by younger scholars, such as Amanda Harris (the Iban of Sarawak), who are carrying on the great tradition. Other essays by Kalpana Ram (India), Marina Roseman (the Temiar of Malaya), Cynthia Hunter (Indonesia), Sydney White (the Naxi of China), Craig Janes (Tibet), and Vincanne Adams (Tibet) complete the picture. All are fine ethnographic sketches.
The unifying theme is a classic anthropological one: traditional, small-scale, indigenous traditions meet international forces of change. Inevitably, the former must accommodate to the overwhelmingly greater wealth and power of the agents of the latter. In the medical arena, nations often push international biomedicine to the exclusion of other modes. In the nations under study here, things are a bit more complex; all have their own elite medical traditions, some much changed by contact with biomedicine (as in the case of China's "Traditional Chinese Medicine," with capital letters; it is a new invention, in spite of the name). So local indigenous healers have to accommodate not only to some much-altered form of biomedicine; they usually have to accommodate also to some much-altered form of their country's elite medicine. They improvise, often with striking success. The spirits of the forest are joined by the spirit of canned sardines (see Roseman's chapter), but spiritual healing practice continues.
Naturally, this is confusing, and here the book begins to break down a bit. "Modernity" as a concept is taken over from the writings of Foucault, de Certeau, Homi Bhabha, and the like, which are by no means consistent or clear on its meaning. And the authors of this book are far too sophisticated to think of "modernity" as any one thing or as anything at all simple. They are, perforce, left to say that modernity-especially as written up at enormous length and vagueness in the works of the authorities cited-is too complex to address here. (Someone more irreverent might even suggest that "modernity," if indeed it cannot be tightly defined, is not a concept worthy of much attention.) This leaves the book rather undertheorized.
Moreover, the authors follow the aforementioned authorities in leaving out bio-scientific considerations, even from descriptions of local modernizing discourses. One wishes for some biomedical diagnoses of cases, for example, for background data on disease incidence, infant and maternal mortality, nutrition, and other basic health concerns. [End Page 702]
A reviewer usually should not complain about what is not treated in a book, but in some cases here, stories really need rounding out. Laurel Kendall speaks of Korean folkloristic interest in shamans, but does not mention the fascinating and hotly debated ideas about shamanism as the fount of Korean morality and fine art. Geoffrey Samuel puts discussion of China's brutal crushing of Tibetans and their culture "beyond the scope of this chapter" (p. 215), which deprives the reader of serious consideration of the most obtrusive force shaping Tibetan medical practice today.
Such quibbles are minor. These compelling studies of local healers caught in global currents can stand on their own. [End Page 703]