Situating the History of Medicine Within Chinese History

Marta Hanson, Johns Hopkins University

Andrew Schonebaum. Novel Medicine: Healing, Literature, and Popular Knowledge in Early Modern China. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016. 296 pp. $50 (cloth); $30 (paper).

Hilary A. Smith. Forgotten Disease: Illnesses Transformed in Chinese Medicine. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017. 248 pp. $85 (cloth); $25 (paper/e-book).

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The past ten years have seen the publication of more than seventy English-language monographs, edited books, translations, dictionaries, and even a three-volume catalogue, related to the history of medicine in China. Such substantive, varied, and often ground-breaking scholarship is finally starting to do justice to the complexity of the subject and the richness of the sources vis-à-vis the better known, and thus more widely taught, history of European and Anglo-American medicine from antiquity to the modern world. Collectively bringing the field of the history of medicine in China to a new level of synthesis, these works not only demonstrate how integral the history of medicine and public health is to Chinese history but also should help facilitate the integration of East Asian medical history into more broadly conceived global histories of medicine and public health. This major boon in publications on the medical history of China over the past decade also reveals the wide-ranging methods and diverse approaches scholars have chosen to frame, and thereby exert heuristic control over, what arguably has become newly visible as the contours of a vast, complex, and essential subject of not just Chinese but human history....

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A comment from the reviewer, Marta Hanson, about the process of writing this piece:

I was stuck with a boring opening to a comparative book review: “Two books in the same field published within two years of each other deserve comparison...” did not inspire me to continue reading, much less carry on writing the review. I had already decided that I would clearly structure the review as a model for my undergraduate students to follow in their assignment to compare two recent books in the history of public health in East Asia: argument and periodization, structure and sources, main contributions, limitations, and audience. I had also blocked out most of these sections to my satisfaction, but the opening paragraph remained uninspired. I was blocked. So, I went swimming. 

When faced with comparable impasses, I often resort to the pool as a thinking tool. Submerged in water where no computer, phone, or electronics dare go, I can “hear myself think,” as some say. Or, rather, as I prefer to phrase it, I can better follow wherever my fleeting thoughts may lead me. And so, in a panic to finish this review over the weekend before it was due on Monday, I focused my thoughts on what to do about the terribly boring opening. 

Not long after entering the water, little did I expect the response that floated to the surface: start with a review of what has been published on the medical history of China in the past decade. What? That's crazy! I could not get that done over the weekend, much less in a day. Still, I thought, perhaps this wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Compiling the bibliography would help better situate the contributions of the two books being reviewed. My students might also find it useful for choosing books to compare for their course assignment. It​ seemed worth taking a stab at it. 

Inspired by these twin goals, I set to work on the bibliography and the prose to go with it. Had I known that more than sixty works would have to be referenced, rhetorically stitched together, and logically connected to the two books being reviewed, I probably would have pragmatically stuck to the original plan. But, ignorance is bliss and “Situating the History of Medicine in Chinese History” is the product.