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Qi-Transformation and the Steam Engine The Incorporation of Western Anatomy and Re-Conceptualisation of the Body in Nineteenth-Century Chinese Medicine

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AbstractTang Zonghai (1851–1908), the widely acclaimed proponent of medical eclecticism in the late Qing period, invented the famous formula: ‘Western medicine is good at anatomy; Chinese medicine is good at qi-transformation.’ While it is well-known that Tang coined the concept of qihua 氣化 (qi-transformation) and thereby created a long-lasting dichotomy between Chinese and Western medicine, it is little known that Tang’s conception of qi-transformation was built upon, and therefore heavily influenced by, a newly-imported technology from the West, namely the steam engine.Based on this surprising discovery, this article intends to make three interrelated arguments. First, Tang Zonghai drew on the newly invented model of the steam engine and the related concept of steam to create a new understanding of qi-transformation in the human body. Second, this new understanding of qi enabled him to reform Chinese medicine by incorporating the new knowledge and visual illustrations of Western anatomy, most notably the illustration of the peritoneum from Gray’s Anatomy and the existence of the ureters. And third, in the dual process of developing the new understanding of qi-transformation and incorporating Western anatomy into Chinese medical doctrines, Tang radically re-conceptualised and re-visualised the body of Chinese medicine, especially the three interrelated organs of the bladder, the Triple Burner, and the kidney. Instead of creating an invisible and immaterial world of qi-transformation in opposition to the materialism of Western anatomy, Tang made his conception of qi-transformation instrumental for the incorporation of Western anatomy into Chinese medical doctrines. With the help of this new understanding of qi as steam, Tang systematically responded to the criticisms raised by Benjamin Hobson and Wang Qingren, formally starting the difficult and problematic process of (re)-visualising the Chinese medical body.

Affiliations: 1: Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, Taiwan and Institute of Science, Technology and Society, Yangming University


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