In both the popular and academic imagination East Asian medicines are captured through a discourse that opposes their presumed "traditional" nature with the "modernity" of science, "East" with "West", "holism" with "reductionism", "belief" with "rationality." On closer inspection, East Asian medicines consistently transgress the categories of this oppositional discourse. Holism, claimed to be one of the most essential features of Chinese medicine turns out to be a European import. System biologists working to develop the new personalised medicine of the 21st century look to East Asian medicines for inspiration. "Traditional Chinese medicine" (TCM) is but a late 20th century reconstitution of an always changing living tradition. Chinese medicine is utilised in the frontline - in China at least - of fighting modern pandemics like SARS and Covid-19. Beyond their clinical utility East Asian medicines can be very useful tools for thinking about life in the present. Exploring such interruptions to the simplistic categorisation informing our understanding of East Asian medicines is the thread that weaves through all of my academic work.
"Volker Scheid is probably the first to theorise the tension between the intel- lectual coherence and the practical diversity of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in the context of ‘the post-modern world’."
— Everett Zhang, Review of "Chinese Medicine in Contemporary China: Plurality & Synthesis", Metascience 12: 325-329, 2003
“What is 'traditional' about 'traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)? How can one reconcile the diachronic and synchronic heterogeneity of Chinese medical beliefs and practices with the idea that they constitute a coherent system? Few provide more thoughtful answers than TCM practitioner and anthropologist Volker Scheid.”
— Yi-Li Wu, Review of "Currents of Tradition in Chinese Medicine, 1626-2006", Bulletin for the History of Medicine 2009, 83
Chinese Medicine in the Treatment of Menopause
The Westminster Menopause Project, funded by an NHS Research Development Grant, was an innovative interdisciplinary study designed to explore how best to translate East Asian medical perspectives on menopause into the design of a pragmatic clinical trial for treating peri-menopausal women in London. This involved a historical study of how East Asian medicines had formulated treatments for menopausal symptoms in the course of the 20th century given the absence of such treatments in the historical literature; a comparison between the menopausal symptoms experienced by London women and those in East Asia, the US and Canada; an exploration of how best to design clinically effective interventions for London women utilising East Asian medicines; and a clinical study that examined the safety and potential effectiveness of acupuncture and herbal medicine treatments.
Constraint as a Window on Emotional Disorders in East Asian Medicines
Liver qi constraint is one of the most commonly diagnosed pattern of disease in contemporary Chinese medicine. Although the diagnosis is made in all kinds of contexts ranging from physical disorders of the liver organ to menstrual irregularity, it is most commonly invoked when there is an emotional component like tension, stress or depression. Other East Asian medical traditions, which draw from the same sources, also recognise a close connection between emotional disorders and qi constraint but do not necessarily connect this to the Liver. My research project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, employed a transnational approach to explore different conjunctures between constraint as a concept available in the shared archive of East Asian medicines and distinctly local modes of thinking, experiencing, recognising and treating its corporeal presence.
In late imperial China, for instance, the concept of Liver qi constraint medicalised frustrations experienced by both men and women in social contexts that allowed new modes of imagining oneself but simultaneously closed opportunities for living who one desired to be. In modern China, instead, Liver constraint became a tool for aligning the body of Chinese medicine with that of Western medicine. Equating Chinese concepts of Liver function with those of the nervous system allowed Chinese physicians to translate the then common problem of neurasthenia or "weak nerves" into existing conceptions of Liver qi constraint. When psychiatrists abandoned the diagnosis of neurasthenia in favour of depression Chinese physicians kept the association with qi constraint but dropped that between the Liver and the nerves.
In modern Korea, meanwhile, the notion of constraint was differently translated into the idiom of hwabyŏng or "fire illness." Defined by symptoms such as anxiety, expressions of hatred, shame, paranoia or irritability that arise in response to distinctly Korean problems of living, hwabyŏng is defined as a so-called culture bound syndrome but treated by Korean doctors of Oriental medicine with herbal formulas composed in Song Dynasty China. In Japan, likewise, concepts of qi constraint assimilated from Chinese medical sources were transformed during the late nineteenth century by the idiosyncratic thought styles of individual physicians, the vagaries of Japanese translations of Chinese terms and the specific socio- cultural contexts in which such production occurred. Today they are seen as part of Kampo, a uniquely Japanese way of practicing a medicine originally imported from China.
The outputs of the project were published in a special issue of the journal Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry. You also download my Introduction and my paper Constraint as a Window on Emotion-Related Disorders in East Asian Medicines.
Transformations of Medicine in 17th Century China
During the late Ming dynasty (1358-1644), first in the 1580s and then in the 1630s and 1640s, a series of devastating epidemics swept through China. Historians estimate a mortality rate of up to twenty percent. In the face of these disasters and the apparent inability of anyone to do much about it physicians, not surprisingly, began to doubt the usefulness of established treatment regimes. Occurring during a period of dynastic transition, profound social and cultural change, and linked to wider intellectual reorientations physicians challenged established modes of reading and interpreting the classics, imagined the body in different ways, and advanced new models for understanding and treating disease. These transformations laid the foundation for how Chinese medicine continues to be practiced today, not only in China but also in Japan and the West.
These transformations are well known but framed with the help of categories that, in Walter Benjamin's terms, reflect the concerns of those who have come to define notions like 'tradition' or the content of what goes for 'Chinese medicine' today. My own research, instead, privileges the perspective of historical actors themselves. This has led me to a very different understanding of the transformations under consideration. It reveals, for instance, the important but hitherto completely neglected role of Buddhism in these transformations. Another example are reconceptualisation of the material body that have been suppressed from historical memory because they do not fit modern oppositions between a Chinese focus on process and a Western concern for structure. Recovering these forgotten histories necessities, in turn, to find new conceptual frameworks for imagining Chinese medicine past and present.
To date, I have published a series of three papers that examine these issues from different perspective. A monograph is currently in preparation.
Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 2011
Traditional East Asian healthcare systems have moved rapidly from the fringes of healthcare systems in the West towards the centre over the past 50 years. This change of status for traditional medicines presents their practitioners with both opportunities and challenges as the focus shifts from one of opposition towards one of integration into biomedically dominated healthcare systems.
Integrating East Asian Medicine into Contemporary Healthcare examines the opportunities and challenges of integrating East Asian medicine into Western healthcare systems from an interdisciplinary perspective. Volker Scheid and Hugh MacPherson bring together contributions from acknowledged experts from a number of different disciplines - including clinical researchers, Chinese Medicine practitioners, historians, medical anthropologists, experts in the social studies of science, technology and medicine - to examine and debate the impact of the evidence-based medicine movement on the ongoing modernization of East Asian medicines.
Scheid, Volker. “Convergent Lines of Descent: Symptoms, Patterns, Constellations & the Emergent Interface of Systems Biology and Chinese Medicine.” East Asia Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal 8 (2014): 107–139
Scheid, Volker and Sean Lei. “The Institutionalization of Chinese Medicine,” In Medical Transitions in Twentieth Century China, edited by Bridie Andrews and Mary Brown Bullock, 244–66. Bloomington & Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press, 2014.
Volker Scheid. “Desires: Capitalism, the Pope and Chinese Medicine.” Somatosphere: Science, Medicine and Anthropology (2016): http://somatosphere.net/2016/03/desires-capitalism-the-pope-and-chinese-medicine.html.
Scheid, Volker and Eric Karchmer. “History of Chinese Medicine, 1890 - 2010,” In Modern Chinese Religion II: 1850-2015, Vol. 1, edited by Vincent Goosaert, Jan Kiely, and John Lagerwey, 141–96. Leiden: Brill, 2016.
Scheid, Volker. “Holism, Chinese Medicine and Systems Ideologies: Rewriting the Past to Imagine the Future,” In The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities, edited by Angela Woods and Anne Whitehead, 66–86. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016.
Scheid, Volker. “From Civilising Foods for Nourishing Life to a Global TCM Dietetics: Changing Perceptions of Foods in Chinese Medicine From the 19th Century to the Present,” Moral Foods: The Construction of Nutrition and Health in Modern Asia, edited by Angela K.C. Leung and Melissa L. Caldwell, Ohau: Hawai’i University Press, 2017.