The interior of a Chinese pharmacy in Los Angeles, 1907

The Lure of Chinese Medicine – JSTOR Daily

When a wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in the western United States in the mid-19th century, among them were not only miners and would-be railroad workers, but also trained medical professionals. Many of these professionals have established practices to serve their own communities, as well as white patients in their new hometowns. As historian Tamara Venit Shelton explains, these doctors and pharmacists succeeded in the face of anti-Chinese stereotypes and attacks from the mainstream medical profession, in part by using the stereotypes to their own advantage.

Beginning in the 1890s, Shelton writes, the American Medical Association (AMA) campaigned against unlicensed doctors, including Chinese professionals who dispensed herbal remedies. States and counties have created licensing systems in line with AMA guidelines, which means alternative practitioners could be punished legally.

The AMA was so focused on advocating the limits of “scientific” medical practice in part because the reputation of “regular doctors” was sketchy. Many Americans associated them with risky surgery and harsh medications and preferred remedies closer to home remedies. Some white patients have visited Chinese American doctors after their homemade poultices have failed or in the hope of avoiding surgery offered by a Western doctor. Chinese methods used by practitioners in the United States generally focused on pulsology – diagnosing a patient based on their pulse – and herbal remedies, which were considered less invasive.

An advertisement for Chinese herbal medicine in Seattle, Washington, 1908 via Wikimedia Commons

Shelton writes that coverage of Chinese-American doctors and pharmacies in major American newspapers often dwelt on descriptions of “charred bones of lions and tigers”, “canned toads” and other ingredients that the audience would likely regard as exotic and revolting. Yet Chinese-American practitioners have often used Orientalist stereotypes to their own advantage. Many of their advertisements showed a doctor wearing typical Chinese clothing. They often insisted that their remedies were “natural” and “ancient”, but also proven by modern science.

A 1902 book by Los Angeles Chinese pharmacist Li Wing, The science of oriental medicine, food and hygiene, played on white American beliefs about Asian barbarism. He claimed Chinese doctors understood the human body better than Americans because they performed vivisection on convicted felons.

Another popular stereotype depicts Chinese men as effeminate, which doctors have turned to their advantage by portraying themselves as particularly sensitive to women and their ailments. Some have criticized gynecological surgeries and contraceptives and suggested that traditional herbs could help protect women from “modern lifestyles”.

Some practitioners also sold their services to white women with the promise that pulsology allowed greater modesty than a Western-style physical examination. Advertisements for a Chinese pharmacy in Oregon featured images of white women dressed in modern upper-class clothing. Shelton notes that this is not the look of the rural women who frequented the shop, but “perhaps representations of what they aspired to be”.

Capitalizing on Orientalist stereotypes won over Chinese-American practitioner patients, but, according to Shelton, it also helped keep them confined to the fringes of American society – at least until the end of the 20th century, when acupuncture and herbal remedies have become increasingly common and have even gained favor with some Western medical institutions.


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By: Tamara Venit Shelton

Oregon Historical Quarterly, vol. 114, no. 3 (autumn 2013), p. 266 to 291

Oregon Historical Society

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