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Chinese Medicine and the Problem of Tradition

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image of Asian Medicine

In the West, but not only in the West, Asian medicines continue to be understood and promoted through a discourse that emphasises their status as 'traditions'. Chinese medicine, widely referred to throughout the world as 'Traditional Chinese Medicine' (TCM), is an obvious example. The problematic nature of this practice, which uses tradition as the 'other' of modernity, has often been criticised, yet no alternative has yet emerged. One solution may be to redefine the notion of tradition in an effort to accord it value in and of itself. This article is a contribution to this process. It combines two different sections from a forthcoming book Currents of Tradition in Chinese Medicine, 1624–2005. The first section briefly reviews the complex history of the concept of tradition in western social thought. The second section, written in a very different style, uses eating—and specifically the meals that the author shared with his informants during his fieldwork—as an analogy for grasping some of the essential practices that define the scholarly tradition in Chinese medicine. Introductory in nature and intention, this article is intended to stimulate debate rather than provide a definite answer to the question it raises.


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