Needles, Herbs, Gods and Ghosts

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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.

by Linda L Barnes
Harvard University Press, hardback, 458 pages

This is a fascinating, invaluable and frustrating book. I first came across it while completing a chapter on the historical background to electroacupuncture’s origins in early nineteenth century Europe for a forthcoming textbook.1 Often, when I searched the internet for niggling little details I could not find elsewhere, I was led to the index of Linda Barnes’ book posted on her publisher’s website (obviously to lure unsuspecting infomaniacs like myself). In the end, I just had to buy it. What Linda Barnes – and nobody else – has done is make accessible in a single manageable volume practically everything the nonspecialist reader might ever want to know about how knowledge of Chinese medicine (acupuncture, moxibustion, herbs, qigong and more esoteric practices) percolated to the West over the centuries, and how Western medicine in its turn influenced developments in China (she does not cover Japanese medicine in any great detail, and Korean medicine is scarcely mentioned). The only previous book even to attempt this in a comprehensive manner, Chinese Medicine by Pierre Huard and Wong Ming,2 was criticised by Nathan Sivin as ‘perfunctory, carelessly thought through, and full of elementary errors’.3 A medical anthropologist rather than an acupuncturist or practitioner of herbal medicine, Linda Barnes has worked on this material for many years, and her book is clearly the result of enormous labours. A real challenge must have been how to present the wealth of information she has amassed. She has chosen to do so in five main chunks. Her first chapter covers the period from Giovanni de Carpini’s mission to Güyük Khan (1245) to 1491, the second (1492-1659) describes the advent of ‘a new wave of Europeans’ such as Jesuits Matteo Ricci and Michael Boym. The third chapter (1660-1736) includes the more familiar names of Andreas Cleyer, Willem ten Rhijne and Engelbert Kaempfer, and the fourth (1737-1804) covers the work of such key figures as Jean-Joseph-Marie Amiot, mideighteenth century chinoiserie, and the subsequent wider dissemination of knowledge about China. Each chapter is longer than the previous one, the longest, best written and most interesting being the fifth (1805-1848), describing the development of acupuncture and aspects of herbalism in Europe and America, as well as the invasion of China by Western medicine. Barnes’ meticulous review of ‘all volumes from 1805 through 1848 of French, English, Irish, Scotch, German, Italian, and American medical journals in the Harvard University library system’, as well as dictionaries, encyclopaedias, dissertations and textbooks from the same period, is particularly impressive. Within each chapter, Barnes has focused on what she calls the ‘racializing’, ‘religionizing’ and ‘medicalizing’ of the Chinese by Western observers, dealing particularly with acupuncture, moxibustion and herbalism in considerable detail. In her somewhat academic conclusion, she draws her threads together in ‘six kinds of hybridity … in relation to Chinese healing practice in the West’: (1) Reporting; (2) Translation; (3) Direct enquiry of Chinese practitioners; (4) Reviews/discussions of Chinese concepts, theories and practices; (5) Adoption of selected aspects of practice; (6) A ‘type of hybridity, in which the Chinese worldview came to inform a Western individual’s perspective so profoundly as to represent a quasi conversion’ (as in the cases of Amiot and Jean-Baptiste Sarlandière, originator of electroacupuncture). Because Linda Barnes has set herself the task of covering so many aspects of China in this single volume, it is perhaps inevitable that her writing is sometimes so crammed full of dates and detail that it becomes rather indigestible. And yet she does not always reference her information precisely, something which I find irritating being myself a perennial trawler for primary sources. At the same time, she hints at so many themes (what she calls ‘tropes’) that it is sometimes impossible for her to do more than draw the reader’s attention to one before she skates on to the next. In a single paragraph, for example, she can jump from Matteo Ricci on elixirs to Paracelsus to the American colonies, or in the space of three paragraphs from Mengzi (Mencius) to the American transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau to ‘Chinese small feet and long nails’. And while she sketches parallels between Western vitalism and the paradigm of qi, yin and yang, she does frustratingly little to explore their ramifications. She conflates, for instance, Isaac Newton’s ‘subtile Spirit’ of the Principia and his various reinterpretations of the Cartesian æther, not looking at how his concepts evolved over his long life, and in particular at how his earlier and later æthers are by no means identical. Her intriguing throwaway on the ‘conceptual parallels between meridians and qi, on the one hand, and emerging ideas about electric, magnetic, and nervous fluids, on the other’ is potentially illuminating (it is explored more fully in my own book1). I am surprised that at this point she did not bring in Newton’s wonderful statement that ‘the electric spirit is a most subtle medium and very easily permeates solid bodies.’ Despite the frustrations that I have with this book, at its masses of detail and corresponding lack of depth, I have to admire what Linda Barnes has accomplished. In many respects she has done a really excellent job, and her book – as she says herself – is ‘unprecedented’. It offers a secure starting point for anyone wishing to carry out research into the history of Chinese medicine in the West, and will no doubt provide inspiration for many future research projects. Its index is excellent and the bibliography is truly astounding, with an ingenious use of much unusual source material (such as medical supply catalogues from the 1830s and 1840s, for example). Curiously however, Linda Barnes somehow manages to omit references for three of her own previous publications mentioned in the text! In sum, although this is not a book I would suggest should be read cover-to-cover, it is an exceptional resource, and well worth the cover price. As practitioners of Chinese medicine attempting to integrate what is still essentially foreign into our own works and lives, I feel we are all very much indebted to Linda Barnes for devoting 25 years of her own life to unfolding so diligently the similarities and differences between Western responses to Chinese healing practices over five centuries, and delineating the eventual and inevitable interdependence of Chinese and Western medicine.
David Mayor

1. Mayor DF 2007 Electroacupuncture East and West: the historical context . In: Mayor DF (ed) Electroacupuncture: A Practical Manual and Resource (CDROM version). Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh. Hopefully this book will be available early in December this year
2. Huard P, Wong M 1968 Chinese Medicine. McGraw-Hill, New York
3. Sivin N 1995 An introductory bibliography of traditional Chinese medicine. In: Sivin N Medicine, Philosophy and Religion in Ancient China: Researches and reflections. Variorum, Aldershot, Hampshire, IX (1-15

More Information

Linda Barnes, 2005. 480pp.

Author Linda Barnes
Publisher Harvard University Press
Number of Pages 480
Book Format Hardback
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