Biomedicine in Chinese East Asia:
From Semicolonial to Postcolonial?
Warwick Anderson
In 1968, Owsei Temkin, the retiring director of the Institute of the History
of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University, warned that “the tradition of the
Western approach to the history of medicine is too narrow a basis for the
historical comprehension of medicine as it is developing in our era.” The
“Western” or “scientific” medicine to which he had devoted so much study
was changing rapidly into “global” medicine, about which he knew little.
Already to a few younger, more anthropologically minded historians, he
said, “scientific medicine appears as a system on a par with other, indige-
nous, systems, so that a kind of comparative history of medicine is cul-
tivated.” While the epistemological consequences of such equipoise gave
Temkin pause, he recognized the need to broaden the scope of the history
of medicine, to acknowledge the cosmopolitan reach of its subject matter.
“If world health is a common concern,” he concluded, “history focused upon
global medicine is a legitimate aim.”1
While historians proved dilatory in taking up their global burden, some
anthropologists in the 1970s displayed considerable interest in comparing
the elite or learned medical traditions of Asia with their Western counter-
part.2 Frequently these systemic comparisons turned out static and narrowly
textual analyses, which obscured the dynamism and complexity of ordi-
nary healthcare. Even so, hints of contact and exchange, eclecticism and hy-
bridity, and stress and subjugation within and between the great traditions
do sometimes emerge in these accounts. Charles Leslie avoided the terms
“Western” and “scientific,” preferring to use “cosmopolitan” to describe the
elite system of medicine that had spread from Europe and superseded other
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