Metaphysics at the bedside
in Historical epistemology and the making of modern Chinese medicine
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This chapter considers a moment in the history of Chinese medicine when the metaphysical was not just under foot but at hand, on the agenda. Questions of being, cosmos, and truth were for a while, in the development of modern Chinese medicine, thoroughly entangled with clinical action. After introducing a 1983 case of illness in which clinical strategy was disputed, I will use Bruno Latour to comment on things and assemblages. Then some powerful, and closely related, “epistemology and methodology” writing of the 1980s in China will be discussed. The concept of Qi transformation is an example: it begins in cosmogony – Qi as the original root of the world – and figures in the physiology and pathology of the body (or thing) seen as a contingent gathering, and provides the ever-changing foundation of all reality. A reading of a modern text on Qi transformation resonates with an important idea from the philosopher Zhuangzi, who argues that the life of man is a gathering of Qi, and death, of course, nothing more frightening than a dispersal. I conclude by returning to the bedside of a case of high fever in 1983, where a group of doctors had gathered who were accustomed to working with slippery and dynamic duixiang things, and who had brought their metaphysics with them to the bedside.

Editor: Howard Chiang


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