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Chinese Medical Concepts in Urban China

Change and Persistence

Martin Böke

Popular assertions proclaim a tradition of Chinese medicine spanning several thousand years. But is this really important for today’s China? Is Chinese medicine relevant for the modern, cosmopolitan urban Chinese today? And, as the political system has changed dramatically during the last century, do these changes influence people’s estimation of illnesses? Combining both a quintessential analysis of the relationship between emotions and health in different texts on Chinese medicine and empirical data consisting of quantitative and qualitative components, the author demonstrates that different social groups of urban dwellers share different opinions on Chinese medicine and its illness concepts, particularly those concepts commonly referred to as Seven Emotions. Education, age and gender are relevant categories for the evaluation of Chinese medicine, especially considering emotions such as stress or depression.
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3. Emotions and Health in Classical Chinese Texts


The Han-Dynasty philosopher and poet Yang Xiong (扬雄, 53 BC – 18 AD) remarked that “one’s writing is the picture of one’s heart” (shu xin hua ye 书心花也), which means that one can “derive information from old documents” regarding emotions as lived experiences, reactions, and expressions (Santangelo 2003:51-52). Fortunately there is a vast amount of philosophical as well as medical literature descended from ancient times in China. One groundbreaking event in this context was the excavation of the Mawangdui (馬王堆 / 马王堆) tomb. This archaeological site, located in the city of Changsha in Hunan Province, consists of three tombs dated to the time of the Western Han-Dynasty (206 BC – 9 AD) and was excavated between 1972 and 1974. The archaeologists discovered silk fabrics covered with different texts, so far unknown or lost philosophical treatise as well as several silk bundles with medical texts; all of which date to the second century BC or older.47 Unschuld and Ma estimate that since these times up until the dismissal of the emperor in 1911, more than 3.000 medical texts remained accessible, which covers a broad spectrum of medical knowledge (Unschuld & Ma 1984: 7).48

In the following chapter, I will analyse a few of these texts, both philosophical and medical, although I am well aware of certain limitations. First, there is the limitation of space and scope in the frame of an ethnological inquiry which is mainly based on empirical data. The analysis of these texts is intended, on the one hand,...

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