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  • Other-Worldly: Making Chinese Medicine through Transnational Frames
  • Vivenne Lo
Mei Zhan . Other-Worldly: Making Chinese Medicine through Transnational Frames. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009. xiv + 240 pp. Ill. $79.95 (cloth, 9780-8223-4363-9), $22.95 (paperbound, 978-0-8223-4384-4).

Mei Zhan's engaging and very readable Other-Worldly is packed with information about the multiplicity of ways in which practitioners, patients, researchers, scientists, and health care activists shaped the world of Chinese medicine in the late twentieth century. It is, in its own frequently deployed descriptive, an effervescent account of the elusive faces of traditional Chinese medicine discovered through, what the author styles, an "ethnography of translocal knowledge production" (p. 1).

I was initially uncomfortable with the rhetoric about the "emergent socialities entangled in dynamic imagineries of pasts, futures, and presents" (p. ix), her description of the selected actor-networks involved in worlding Chinese medicine—a Latourian-inspired attack on the kind of reductive globalism that takes for [End Page 524] granted a fixed and hierarchical spatio-temporal relationship between the global and the local. The effervescing discourse seemed to disguise a lack of what some of my colleagues in history of medicine would call "empirical" evidence.

So the book got shelved for a few months until I picked it up on a flight to South China where I was attending an international forum on Confucianism. As practitioner and historian I was expected to speak to the "propaganda" bosses of Quzhou city about the virtues of traditional Chinese medicine as the legacy of Confucianism. This government-sponsored neo Neo-Confucianism is aimed at the creation of a postsocialist morality that underpins social harmony—a Confucianism that disregards the old social and gender hierarchies embedded in its past and is reconstructed as the antisuperstition, ethnically Chinese philosophy of environmentalism, education and meritocracy, holistic medicine, sustainable development, and anything else perceived necessary to ongoing Chinese social stability. Other-Worldly was a good companion on that trip.

Thus for all of us involved in the creation of a modern Chinese medicine, "the worlding of traditional Chinese medicine is suspended in discrepant spaces and times that are themselves contingent products of uneven translocal fields of power." Mei Zhan's fieldwork was carried out between Shanghai and San Francisco, in and around influential hospitals and medical schools teaching Chinese medicine during the late nineties. Her respondents include people active in the formation of those institutions; those who remember the students from Africa, Latin America, and the Soviet Union who gathered in China to learn Chinese medicine during the seventies; women who defied the patrilineage of teaching transmission to stake a place in this new world; and practitioners of Chinese medicine performing miracles in California.

The book is divided into three parts: Entanglements, Negotiations, and Dislocations. Linking all three is this notion of worlding. The author traces the development of this concept from Heidegger through Spivak and Chakrabarty to a modern discourse that attempts to liberate our imagination of the world from a "multiplication that adds on geographical locales into a singular global narrative" with descriptions of knowledge production that articulate multisited connectivity. To this end we hear about Chinese medicine championed as the medicine of the international proletariat: the People's Daily reporting barefoot doctors performing miracles on a Mauritanian nomad woman; how the investment in medical miracles as a strategy for Chinese practitioner survival in California simultaneously delineates and differentiates the biomedical world as powerful and hostile; advantages and compromises made in the shifting alliances with clinical research, the linguistic gear shifts necessitated by practitioners as they crisscross the boundaries of laboratory and clinic; lamentations about the loss of the traditional arts. The stories are derived from ethnographic interviews but are based in a broad reading of the secondary literature across anthropology, history, and science studies. In this way they link the most intimate subjectivities with larger changes that have occurred within Chinese medical knowledge and practice worldwide.

In subject and analysis, the book follows in the wake of Farquhar, Hsu, and Scheid, those anthropologists who have written against the old descriptions of an [End Page 525] enduring tradition that finds its roots in the...


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pp. 524-526
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