Beyond tradition: styles of practice and ways of knowing in East Asian medicine, 1100 to the present

In the early 21st century, East Asian medicines are uniquely situated practices in a world of rapidly accelerating change and the relative decline of the West: they attach to distinctive non-western cultures yet claiming universal applicability; they emphasise age-old knowledge yet are capable of forging synergistic links to some of the most innovative areas of modern techno-science.

Yet, rather than engaging with this vitality, East Asian medicines continue to understood through the dated notion of “tradition,” a label that automatically casts these practices in oppositon to the modernity of biomedicine and science even as, in clinical research and practice, these boundaries are consistently being blurred. We therefore argue that the present historical moment offers a unique opportunity to examine afresh the nature of East Asian medicines and their historical development.

Supported by a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Grant in the Humanities to PI Professor Volker Scheid and building on existing expertise within the EASTmedicine Research Group, 'Beyond Tradition: Styles of Practice and Ways of Knowing in East Asian Medicine' is a sustained programme of research that seeks to understand East Asian medicines throughout the last one thousand years, in and on their own terms.

We analyse how physicians in various locales seek to solve concrete clinical problems by engaging with bodies, researching pharmaceuticals, assembling them into recipes, and debating how to achieve consistent clinical effects. In this way, we intend to build up a picture of East Asian medicine as a landscape made up of distinct styles of practice that consistently merge in and out of each other and that connect to other practices across multiple boundaries, geographical as well as conceptual. Working in this way from the bottom up, the project seeks to overcome numerous limitations to our current understanding of East Asian medicines that directly stem from their fixation within the discourse of modernity.