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  • Neither Donkey nor Horse: Medicine in the Struggle over China’s Modernity by Sean Hsiang-Lin Lei
  • Xiaoping Fang
Neither Donkey nor Horse: Medicine in the Struggle over China’s Modernity, by Sean Hsiang-Lin Lei. Chicago & London, The University of Chicago Press, 2014. x, 376 pp. $35.00 US (cloth).

The central theme in the history of medicine in modern China is the legitimacy crisis Chinese medicine faced from the twentieth century onward, as modern medicine and the state challenged traditional practice. Throughout the Republican Period, reform-minded Chinese medicine practitioners attempted to bring about profound institutional, epistemological, and material changes in their field. Their attempt to find a modern form for pre-modern Chinese medicine attracted criticism from staunch advocates of both Chinese and Western medicines, who scorned the resulting practice as being a “mongrel” medicine — or “neither donkey nor horse.”

This highly innovative and provocative book is based on rich original material and secondary literature. Sean Hsiang-Lin Lei has re-interpreted Chinese medicine’s entangled and complicated relationships with the state, science, and modernity in the changing political and social contexts from [End Page 642] the late nineteenth century to 1949. The book reaches beyond the dual history framework of the “survival of traditional medicine” and “the development of modern medicine,” and shifts the focus from policy struggle over the role of Chinese medicine to an ideological struggle over the very nature of China’s modernity. Under this perspective, Chinese medicine in modern China was not passively abolished, but rather actively participated in the construction of the modern state.

The key issues facing Chinese medicine prior to the “scientizing” efforts of these reformers are the subject of chapter two through six. The author traces the impact of the Manchurian Plague of 1910–1911 on Chinese medicine, the changing face of medicine in China from 1860 to 1928, early Chinese medical practitioners’ efforts to accommodate Chinese medicine with Western medicine, the so-called Chinese Medical Revolution of 1929 and the consequent struggle of practitioners of Chinese medicine against Western medicine, and the medical landscape of 1930s Shanghai.

The way reformers of Chinese medicine strove to “scientize” Chinese medicine is the focus of chapter seven through nine. This process began with the National Medicine Movement, the development of the incipient form of “pattern differentiation and treatment determinations” (pp. 167–192), scientific research on the antimalarial efficacy of changshan (Dichroa febrifuga root), and experimental efforts to implement State Medicine in rural China. Lei presents fresh arguments concerning Chinese medicine’s relationship with the state. He contends that the abolitionist movement and the National Medicine Movement were actually attempting to create a closer alliance between Chinese medicine and the state, while Chinese medicine practitioners were seeking collective social mobility.

Lei’s examination of the reformers’ strategies to scientifically validate the Chinese medicine drug changshan as an antimalarial is particularly interesting. He furthers our understanding of the rise of pattern differentiation and disease determination before 1949 through his analysis of how infectious diseases and germ theory impacted Chinese medicine, and how reformers avoided the weak ontological conception of diseases in Chinese medicine. Lei’s discussions on Chinese medicine reformers’ research protocol for changshan and the political strategies for scientific research into Chinese drugs show the author’s strong interdisciplinary training, acute observation, and analytic skills. Lei meticulously and adeptly deconstructs this scientific research into a multi-layered “re-networking” process in which biomedical practitioners and scientists decoupled changshan from the traditional network and assimilated it into their own social-technical network.

Lei argues that the strength of modernity lies in creating hybrids that cross the “internal divide” between nature and culture, and the “external divide” between pre-modern Chinese medicine and modern medicine. [End Page 643] Reformers of Chinese medicine recognized the possibility of a hybrid medicine that would bridge these divides and effectively negotiated this under the banner of Scientizing Chinese Medicine.

Neither Donkey Nor Horse offers fresh, inspiring perspectives and methodologies to understand the institutional, epistemological, and material transformation of other Chinese traditions as well as their relationships with the state, science, and modernity in the context of modern China. It also further revises and answers the...


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