Slow medicine
How Chinese medicine became efficacious only for chronic conditions
in Historical epistemology and the making of modern Chinese medicine
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In China, one of the most common assumptions about Chinese medicine, shared by doctors and patients alike, is that it is slow-acting and best suited to the treatment of chronic ailments. This claim is almost always made in comparison to biomedicine, which is considered fast-acting and essential for the treatment of acute conditions. To most observers, these differences are inherent in the nature of these two medical systems. In this paper, I will show that Chinese medicine only became “slow” in 1950s, as the newly empowered Communist party enacted health care policies to incorporate Chinese medicine into the national health care system. Prior to this important transition period, Chinese medicine doctors operated outside the control of the state but enjoyed a reputation for administering fast-acting therapies. What caused this remarkable shift in perception and sudden re-evaluation of the clinical efficacy of Chinese medicine? Based on oral histories collected from surviving doctors of the Republican era, I will attempt to sketch the reasons for this “slowing down” of Chinese medicine, focusing on the establishment of new medical institutions in the Communist era, tracing the relationship between Chinese medicine and biomedicine that developed through these institutions, and exploring how this new social terrain affected the theory and practice of Chinese medicine.

Editor: Howard Chiang

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