History of Chinese Medicine

A good doctor first makes a diagnosis,
and having found out the cause of the disease,
he tries to cure it first by food.
When food fails, then he prescribes medicine.
— Sun Simiao (581-682 CE)

History of Chinese Medicine: Tradition and Modernity (HIST300) is a 30-credit, “special subject” module open to final-year History undergraduates at the University of Liverpool. It will not run in the 2017-2018 academic year.



This module covers the history and historiography of one of the most popular and sophisticated systems of medicine in the world: Chinese medicine. Starting from a comparison of the conceptualisation and representation of the body in early China versus ancient Greece, the module introduces students to key ideas in Chinese medicine such as “Yin Yang”, “Five Processes”, “Qi”, “Meridians” and “Five Organs and Six Bowels”. Diagnosis (including pulse-taking and tongue examination) and therapy (including moxibustion and acupuncture) are explored, alongside the Chinese tradition of “self-cultivation” and the various techniques that promote health –– and even immortality. Theories concerning food and drugs are dissected, and the tremendous plurality of practitioners throughout the history of Chinese medicine are analysed in detail.

Crucially, the course unpacks developments of Chinese medicine in nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including: Chinese medicine’s encounters with Western medicine via Christian missionaries; attempts to abolish Chinese medicine in the Republican period; the construction of so-called “TCM” in the Communist era; and the proliferation of acupuncture and herbal therapies around the world (as one of the many “Complementary and Alternative Medicines”). Students are introduced to debates among physicians, intellectuals and lawmakers surrounding the safety and efficacy of Chinese medicine. An interdisciplinary approach is adopted, and students will engage with literature from medical anthropology and philosophy of science, as well as case histories, research papers from scientific journals, government documents, and audio-visual materials. No prior knowledge on the history of medicine, Chinese history, or Chinese language is required.


Schedule 2016-2017

1.  Orientations: From Chronologies to Geographies
2.  Bodies: From Cosmologies to Correspondences
3.  Diagnosis: From Wrists to Tongues
4.  Treatments: From Moxibustion to Acupuncture
5.  Cultivations: From Copulation to Qigong
6.  Pharmacologies: From Herbs to Soups
7.  Tutorial Week
8.  Alchemies: From Cinnabar to Daoism
9.  Practitioners: From Legends to “Quacks”
10. Confrontations: From Missionaries to Marmots
11. Reinventions: From Maoism to TCM
12. Globalisations: From CAM to Artemisinin


Recommended Books

Bridie Andrews, The Making of Modern Chinese Medicine, 1850-1960 (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2015).
TJ Hinrichs and Linda Barnes
(eds.), Chinese Medicine and Healing: An Illustrated History (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013).
Shigehisa Kuriyama, The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine (New York: Zone Books, 2002).
Volker Scheid, Chinese Medicine in Contemporary China: Plurality and Synthesis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002).
Paul Unschuld, Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen: Nature, Knowledge, Imagery in an Ancient Chinese Medical Text (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

Previous Incarnation

History of Chinese Medicine: Tradition and Modernity (HIST300, University of Liverpool) was based on History of Asian Medicine: China and Tibet (HMED3014, University College London), which I co-taught in the 2011-2012 academic year with Dr Theresia Hofer (now Lecturer in Social Anthropology at University of Bristol).


Source for Feature Image

“Foot’s Yang Supreme Stomach Meridian” (Zhu yang ming wei jing, usually abbreviated as ST). Wellcome Images L0012239.