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Chinese Medicine Exhibit: Modern Practices Born of Ancient Ideas

"A patient receiving manipulative treatment for a pain in the shoulder" by Zhou Pei Chun, c.1890. Watercolor, digital reproduction. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

Posted May. 15, 2018

There’s no escaping the side-by-side graphics that confront the viewer at the entrance to the Chinese Medicine in America: Converging Ideas, People and Practices exhibit, up through Sept. 9 at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) on Centre Street in lower Manhattan.

On the left, is a multi-colored illustration from 1926 by Fritz Kahn from Der Mensch als Industriepalast (Man as Industrial Palace). It depicts the human body as a machine with gears and conveyor belts, an office full of busy workers, dressed in white, scurrying about in the brain. On the right is Nei Jing Tu (Chart of the Inner Cannon), a black-and-white reprint of an 1886 Chinese Taoist rendering of the body’s internal system. Before us, a mountainous landscape with sky, trees and water. A cow herder holds the Northern Dipper constellation of stars and a weaver pushes qi, the life force, upward. Children spin waterwheels below, at the base of the spine.

Paintings of Meridian Charts, 18th century. Artist unknown. Watercolor on paper, digital reproduction. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

These contrasting works hint at the tension of Chinese medicine in America and the perception that “Western” medicine is more advanced and more industrialized. Resisting the East-West binary, the curatorial team at MOCA—Donna Mah, Guest Curator, Herb Tam, Curator and Director of Exhibitions, and Andrew Rebatta, Assistant Curator—chose to use the term “biomedicine” instead of “Western” medicine throughout the show. The idea is to explore Chinese medicine without falling victim to the stereotypical notion that it is largely derived from and dependent on folk traditions.

“We wanted to show that there is deep scholarship behind it,” Tam said, likening it to the Talmudic tradition. “There were texts that went back and forth questioning everything.”

The show took two years to develop. “It grew out of a staff discussion about parts of Chinese culture that are pillars, things that we have not exposed,” Tam said. A few years back, they had installed a popular exhibit on food paired with commissioned ceramics art. This time around, the decision was made to focus on medicine since Chinese medical concepts are increasingly incorporated into today’s medical practices. One reason for the change, Tam suggested, is that people are aware of the extreme side effects of pharmaceuticals. Along with other art, the exhibit is paired with commissioned woodblock prints, a brilliant curatorial decision to use a traditional Chinese art form to highlight the people who played prominent roles in the history of Chinese medicine in America.

"A doctor taking the pulse of a woman patient," by Zhou Pei Zun, c.1890. Watercolor. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

The first gallery focuses is on the hardships Chinese medicine faced as it struggled for legitimacy in America. There’s Robert Cipriano’s woodblock print of Miriam Lee (2018) to commemorate the California-based acupuncturist who was arrested for practicing without a license in 1974. A smile on her face, glasses perched on her nose, a watch on her wrist, it shows Lee’s fingers deftly massaging a patient’s ankle. When Lee appeared in court, many of her patients testified on her behalf. Within a few days, acupuncture was legalized as an experimental procedure in California and by 1976, it was officially recognized in the state.

Brushes with prescriptions. Photo: Shael Shapiro

Hanging on the wall next to Lee is Vincent Chong’s print (2018) of Doc Hay whose Kam Wah Chung & Co. General Store and Apothecary in John Day, OR, is the subject of a smaller companion exhibit in the museum.

Divided into 12 thematic sections, the exhibit moves from Chinese medicine’s metaphysical origins to its philosophies of diagnosis, healing through herbal remedies, and deep understanding of the spirit of nature or qi, which circulates through the meridians of the body. Instead of merely counting the pulse in beats per minutes, Chinese doctors study whether the pulse is thin or full or slippery and they try to observe if there is an imbalance of yin yang in the body. This often involves a close examination of the tongue.

A woodblock print of Li Dong Yuan, a medicine master of the Jin-Yuan period (1115-1368 AD) by Vincent Chong (2018) shows Yuan with the outline of a stomach prominent on his chest. Yuan believed that all disease was related to problems in the digestive system. On the print, Chong has written Chinese characters which translate as: “The interior impairment of the spleen and stomach would bring about the occurrence of various diseases.”

Featured in the herbal medicine gallery is Dr. Carl Shan Leung’s Kamwo herbal dispensary located at 211 Grand Street in Chinatown. Opened in 1973, the store continues to thrive today, doing an extensive in-store and online business in raw herbs to be cooked down into tea, granules to be reconstituted with warm water, or in pill form. Dr. Leung wrote “New York Chinese Medicine Practitioners Qualifications Criteria and Procedures,” which made Chinese immigrant doctors aware of credentialing requirements.

The 1970s was an especially important decade for Chinese medicine. Before President Richard Nixon made his historic 1972 visit inaugurating U.S. relations with the People’s Republic of China, New York Times journalist James Reston traveled to China to cover the story. While there he became ill and had his appendix removed under acupuncture anesthesia, also receiving acupuncture treatment for post-operative swelling and pain. The result was his front page article, headed “Now About My Operation in Peking,” that focused on the ways that Chinese medicine was combining new technology and old knowledge. A delegation of U.S. physicians subsequently visited China and one doctor, Samuel Rosen, wrote back, “I have seen the past and it works.”

As an acupuncturist and faculty member at the Pacific College of Medicine in New York, Donna Mah believes that the exhibit has an important educational role to play in the Chinese-American community. “We all grew up with herbal liniments, with bleeding, and with wound care. You would make a poultice out of powder.” She added, “I am hoping that this exhibit will help people reconnect to their own family experience.”

In the late 1880s, Doc Hay began practicing out of Kam Wah Chung & Co., a general store in John Day, OR. Some 2,000 Chinese immigrant miners lived in the town. The building is now a museum.

In a separate gallery, as a counterpoint to the larger Chinese Medicine exhibit, MOCA has installed “On the Shelves of Kam Wah Chung & Co., General Store and Apothecary in John Day, Oregon,” a historical show about a shop run by Doc Hay (1862-1952) and his business partner, Lung On. Once home to more than 2,000 Chinese immigrants, many of them miners, John Day had the third largest Chinatown in America. By 1900, when gold mines in the area died out and there was no longer a need for workers, only 100 Chinese remained.

The exhibit recreates Doc Hay’s bedroom and office through large scale photo blowups, cases filled with herbs and other specimens (including a bear claw), newspaper clippings and photographs, as well as reproductions of grateful letters sent by patients who had been cured of blood poisoning and meningitis. One patient described the treatment as involving a small white disc rubbed up and down the spine, with some bleeding at certain points. This treatment was similar to acupuncture, and its purpose was to increase circulation and revive nerves. A letter from a Portland herbalist who wishes to apprentice under Doc Hay, opens, “I have heard for a long time all the miracles you have done.”

Doc Hay was well aware of his talent. According to the curators of the exhibit, he took “special care of his hands and he would never handle anything rough, which was quite the challenge in the Wild West.”
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