Beyond Tradition

Ways of Knowing and Styles of Practice in East Asian Medicines, 1000 to the Present

The growing popularity of East Asian medicines and their continually evolving interface with biomedicine makes it important to understand these healing systems better than we do to date. Nothing hampers such understanding more, however, than their ever-present designation as “traditions.” Adding little analytical value, the label tends to evoke a habituated (and often emotional) response that casts these practices in opposition to biomedicine and science.

Our research programme therefore seeks to find ways of understanding East Asian medicines that go “beyond tradition.” Its stated objectives are: (i) to provide a comprehensive account of the development of East Asian medicines over the last one thousand years; (ii) to do this in and on their own terms; (iii) to supply generalisations that enable cross-cultural comparisons; and (iv) to engage in dialogue across disciplinary boundaries in the humanities and beyond with life sciences and clinical researchers to foster new understandings of the nature of medicine more generally.

Thematically, we will focus on three inter-related problematics that we see as emblematic of all medical practice but that remain under-researched vis-a-vis East Asian medicines: (i) the evaluation of effectiveness; (ii) interactions with the materiality of the body; and (iii) the assemblage of pharmaceuticals into distinctive styles of practice.

Currently, our researchers work on three distinctive projects: (i) an epistemic historiography of East Asian medicine from the Song to the present; (ii) an examination of the globalisation of Tibetan pharmaceuticals and their interface with biomedicine and Chinese medicines; and (iii) an examination of how bodies in late imperial Chinese medicine were understood at the intersection of knowledge and practice in the fields of “external ailments” and “injury medicine.” Several more projects will be coming on line in the coming year.


Yi-Li Wu and Mona Schrempf started the project together with Volker Scheid in 2012. Four postdoctoral research fellows joined the project during the next three years: Lena Springer, Leslie de Vries, Kiebok Yi, Olaf Czaja. Claudia Citkovitz and Guy Waddell have finished and Sabine Glatz started related PhD projects.


Publication list for Beyond Tradition project

Journal papers


  • Springer, Lena. 2016. "Safeguarding Chinese Materia Medica: One Family as a Case of Transmitting Trans-Regional Pharma-Craft, and Scholarly Science in Contemporary China." AAS Working Papers in Social Anthropology, 30. ISBN-Online: 978-3-7001-7905-4. 1-18. DOI:10.1553/wpsa30. 
  • Wu, Yi-Li. 2016. “A Trauma Doctor’s Practice in Nineteenth-century China: The Medical Cases of Hu Tingguang.” Social History of Medicine 2016. First published on-line August 19, 2016. DOI:10.1093/shm/hkw075.



  • Scheid, Volker. 2014. “Convergent Lines of Descent: Symptoms, Patterns, Constellations & the Emergent Interface of Systems Biology and Chinese Medicine.” East Asia Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal. 8. 107-139.


  • Scheid, Volker. 2014. “Xiaoping Fang. 2012. Barefoot Doctors and Western Medicine in China.” Social History of Medicine 27. 1. 185-186.
  • Schrempf, Mona and Olaf Czaja. 2013. “Theresia Hofer. 2012. The Inheritance of Change. Transmission and Practice of Tibetan Medicine in Ngamring.”, Asian Medicine - Tradition and Modernity. 8 (2).515 – 518.
  • Springer, Lena. 2012. “Kotte, Gudrun. 2009. Wissen, Körper, Kompetenz: Das Erleben von Schwangerschaft, Geburt und Wochenbett von chinesischen Frauen in Berlin (Knowledge, body, competence: Chinese women experiencing their pregnancy, giving-birth and the post-partum period in Berlin).“ Berliner Beiträge zur Ethnologie (Berlin contributions to ethnology) [ISSN 1610-6768]. 16. Berlin: Weißensee Verlag. German. Asian medicine: Tradition and Modernity. 7 (2). 492-493.

Book chapters

  • Scheid, Volker and Eric Karchmer. 2016. “History of Chinese medicine, 1890 – 2010.” V. Goosaert, Kiely J. & Lagerwey J. (ed.). Modern Chinese Religion II: 1850-2015. 1. 139-194. Leiden: Brill. DOI: 10.1163/9789004304642_005. 
  • Scheid, Volker. 2016. “Holism, Chinese medicine and systems ideologies: rewriting the past to imagine the future.” A. Woods & Whitehead A. (ed.). The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities: 66-86. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. PMID: 27536758.
  • Springer, Lena. 2015. “Arztgeschichten: Zur chinesischen Medizinkultur, 1926-2015 (in German: Physicians' Stories - On Chinese Medical Culture, 1926-2015).” Book series on behalf of the Swiss Society: Worlds of East Asia.
  • Scheid, Volker and Sean.H.L. Lei. 2014. “The institutionalization of Chinese medicine.” B. Andrews & Bullock M.B. (ed.). History of Twentieth Century Medicine in China. 244-266. Bloomington & Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press.
  • Springer, Lena and Katja Pessl. 2013. “MigrantInnen aus China im Wiener Hochschul- und Gesundheitswesen: Dynamische Zwischenzonen und Einzelinitiativen. (Migrants from China in Vienna’s Higher Education and Health Care Systems: Dynamic In-Between Zones and Individual Initiatives).“ Dahlvik, J. /Reinprecht, C./Sievers, W. (eds.). Migration und Integration: Wissenschaftliche Perspektiven aus Österreich Jahrbuch 2/2013. Series: Migrations- und Integrationsforschung. 5. 69-86. Vienna University Press/ V&R unipress. DOI: 10.14220/9783737001878.69.

Dictionary entries

  • Springer, Lena. 2014. “Zhang Zhongjing.” Brown, K. (ed.). Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing. 377-381.

Conference and workshop reports

  • Schrempf, Mona. 2016. “Tibetan Formulas in Interdisciplinary and Multilingual Perspectives - Translating ‘Wind’ Disorders and Stress in Tibetan Medicine.” Workshop report.
  • --------. 2015. Conference report “Developing an interdisciplinary and multilingual digital knowledge base on Tibetan medical formulas with a focus on stress-related 'wind' (rlung) disorders.” International Workshop, EAST medicine, University of Westminster. May 8-10, 2015. IASTAM Newsletter.

Presentations at conferences and workshops

  • Czaja, Olaf. 2016. "Taste, Post–digestive Taste and Potency in Tibetan Medical Treatises." XIVth Seminar for the International Association of Tibetan Studies. June 19–25, 2016. Bergen, Norway.
  • De Vries, Leslie. 2016. "Le Huu Trac's Style of Sino-Vietnamese Medicine: A New Reading of the Account of the Travel to the Capital (1783)." HOMSEA 6, Siem Reap. Jan 13-15, 2016.
  •  -------. 2016. "Universalities and Local Particularities in the Treatment of Cold Damage: A View from Eighteenth Century Vietnam.” American Association for Asian Studies (AAS) Annual Conference, Seattle. April 3, 2016.
  • -------. 2016. "Religion and Scholarly Medicine in Vietnam, 1200-1800: A Preliminary Overview.” Workshop ‘Sacred Cures: Situating Religion in Asia’ at the Max Planck Institute, Berlin. May 2-4, 2016.
  • Scheid, Volker. 2016. "Promoting Free Flow in the Vessels. Three Case Histories by Ye Tianshi." American Association for Asian Studies (AAS) Annual Conference, Seattle. April 3, 2016.
  • Springer, Lena. 2016. "Material Culture and Textuality: How Does This Go Together in the Minds of Chinese Medicine Thinkers/Practitioners: Examples from Materia Medica in the Archive and Field." Needham Research Institute, Cambridge. June 13, 2016.
  • -------. 2016. "Material Culture, Bodily Practice, and Medical Textuality: Current Issues in Chinese Medical History." Workshop on Material Culture co-organised with Chen Hao, John Moffett, and Leah Zuo. Needham Research Institute, Cambridge. June 13, 2016.
  • -------. 2016. "Whose History? Writers of Medical History in Modern China, and During the Privotal 1950s." Presented at the panel ‘Whose 'Tradition'? Chinese Medicine, Modernity, and Historiography’ co-organised with Prof Chen Hao (Renmin University in Beijing, PR China). 8th conference of the Asian Society for the History of Medicine (ASHM), Academia Sinica, Taipei. October 1-2, 2016.
  • Wu, Yi-Li. 2016. “How to handle a woman? Gender and bonesetting in the cases of Hu Tingguang.” Presentation for roundtable on ‘Styles of Practice and Medical Diversity in the History of Healing in China.’ American Association for Asian Studies (AAS) Annual Conference, Seattle, WA. April 3, 2016.
  • Yi, Kiebok. 2016."From the Local to the Universal: Transformation of Disease Conceptions in 19th Century Korea within the Parameters of Time, Space and Human.” American Association for Asian Studies (AAS) Annual Conference, Seattle. April 3, 2016.


Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award in the Medical Humanities (Award 097918/Z/11/Z). Amount £974,187; Period: 08/2012-07/2017

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