CCS Noon Lecture Series. "Neither Donkey nor Horse: Medicine and the Struggle over China’s Modernity"


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  • Speaker: Sean Hsiang-lin Lei, Inst. of Modern History, Academia Sinica, Taiwan; Inst. for Advanced Study, Princeton University
  • Host Department: ccs
  • Date: 04/22/2014
  • Time: 12:00PM

  • Location: SSWB/International Institute-Room 1636

  • Description:

    This talk aims to answer one question:  How was Chinese medicine transformed from an antithesis of modernity in the early twentieth century into a potent symbol and vehicle for China’s exploration of its own modernity half a century later?  Instead of viewing this transition as a derivative of the political history of modern China, it argues that China’s medical history had a life of its own and at times even influenced the ideological struggle over the definition of China’s modernity and the Chinese state.  Far from being a “remnant” of pre-modern China, Chinese medicine in the 20th century co-evolved with Western medicine and the Nationalist state, undergoing a profound transformation – institutionally, epistemologically, and materially – that resulted in the creation of a modern Chinese medicine.

    Nevertheless, this newly re-assembled modern Chinese medicine was stigmatized by its opponents at that time as a mongrel form of medicine that was “neither donkey nor horse,” because the discourse of modernity rejected the possibility of productive crossbreeding between the modern and the traditional. Against the hegemony of this discourse, the definitive feature of this new medicine was the fact that it took the discourse of modernity (and the accompanying knowledge of biomedicine) seriously but survived the resulting epistemic violence by way of negotiation and self-innovation. In this sense, the historic rise of this “neither donkey nor horse” medicine constitutes a local innovation of crucial importance for the notion of China’s modernity, challenging us to imagine different kinds of relationships between science and non-Western knowledge traditions.

    Sean Hsiang-lin Lei is Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, Taiwan and Member at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, 2013-14. He specializes in the history of medicine, including both biomedicine and traditional medicine, in modern China and Taiwan.  His first book, Neither Donkey nor Horse: Medicine and the Struggle over China’s Modernity (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming in 2014) seeks to understand how Chinese medicine was transformed from an antithesis of modernity in the early twentieth century into a potent symbol and vehicle for China’s exploration of it own modernity half a century later. His on-going research investigates the changing conceptions of the body, selfhood, and moral community through the history of two competing diseases: modern Tuberculosis and laobing (wasting disorders), a traditional disease that is caused primarily by various forms of overwork.  He teaches at the Institute of Science, Technology and Society (STS) at Yangming University in Taiwan and co-edited two STS Readers (2005). Drawing on historical studies, he explores larger theoretical issues such as the relationship between modern science and non-Western knowledge traditions, the emergence of the capitalist body in China, and the role of techno-science in the making of modern East Asia.  

    This talk is co-sponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies and by the American Council of Learned Societies/Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation and the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures as a part of the series "Global and Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Chinese Medicine."

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