AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 40

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Session 40: The Adaptation and Reinvention of Chinese Healing and Religious Practices to the Western Market: Four Case Studies on Chinese Medicine, Taijiquan and Female Alchemy

Organizer: Elena Valussi , Loyola University, Chicago, USA

Chair: Linda Barnes, Boston University, USA

Discussant: Nancy N. Chen, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA

This panel proposes to look at the process of transmission and adaptation of Chinese healing and religious practices to the contemporary Western market in the US and Europe. In the last 2 decades, the revival of several spiritual, religious and healing practices in mainland China, combined with a more relaxed policy about travel, has spurred a wave of transmission from China to the West. Through the relocation or of ethnically Chinese teachers to the West, and through the travel of Western practitioners to China, a new global community of teachers and learners of techniques such as Chinese medicine, acupuncture, Taijiquan, and inner alchemy has formed. This process of transmission and adaptation highlights the permeable and flexible nature of techniques that, already transformed in mainland China by the socio-political context of the previous century, undergo another metamorphosis when they are offered to the consumption of the US and European market. The papers in this panel look, from different perspectives, at the process of negotiation between mainland China and the West, between teachers and students, between concepts of health, illness, and spiritual well being. The four different panelists look at how Western and Chinese practitioners re-invent Taijiquan, Chinese medicine, acupuncture and inner alchemy for women according to the needs of the Western market. They provide not only a theoretical framework for their studies, but also anthropological case studies to illustrate the specificities of these processes of translation, transmission and adaptation.

Cultural Inflections of Auricular Acupuncture
Linda Barnes, Boston University, USA

The revival of traditional medicine in Mainland China following the Revolution, the influence of Maoist versions of social change, and health campaigns—including those involving the barefoot doctors—inspired public health initiatives globally, some set in motion by the PRC itself. Such influences inspired some of the politicized adoption of acupuncture in particular in countries like the United States. As a result, the lines of transmission that have led to the dissemination of acupuncture throughout the United States are often rather narrowly identified with this direct link to Mainland China and, sometimes, with immigrant practitioners in the United States. However, this representation overlooks other trajectories. This paper will draw on auricular acupuncture as a case in point, tracing the threads of influence that came together into its emergence, and then tracking its migration through a series of adaptations and applications that have cut across cultural communities in the U.S., and gone on to exercise an international influence. These cross-cutting influences figure, as well, in a growing tension within the greater American acupuncture world, between a popularizing orientation on the one hand, and a move toward a clinical doctorate—often part of the biomedicalizing of this modality.

Taiji in America: From Healing Technique to Religious Practice and Back Again
Elijah Siegler, College of Charleston, USA

Taiji is a body practice originating in China that is growing in popularity in the U.S. It is said to have Daoist origins and to result in health and vitality. This paper argues that, in the U.S., taiji’s image as a Daoist practice originates from a particular moment in the history of the counterculture: the birth of the human potential movement. Then, this paper will analyze the relationship between taiji, healing, and religion to American practitioners. In China, Taiji’s origins do not lie in Daoism but in the 18th century Chinese military. In the U.S. taiji became associated with Daoism after it began to be taught at Esalen, the center associated with the human potential movement. Today, Taiji is taught in nursing homes and community centers by teachers uncomfortable speaking about religion at all. But Daoism continues to make implicit promises about the healing power of taiji.

Female alchemy goes global: the contemporary transmission of a meditation practices for women to the Western market
Elena Valussi , Loyola University, Chicago, USA

This paper deals with the adaptation of a Chinese spiritual practice for women, nüdan, or female alchemy, to the Western market. Female alchemy is a religious practice developed in the nineteenth century in China with a strong influence derived from Daoist meditation techniques. Its emergence was connected both to a desire of women to have their own spiritual refinement, and the need to reign in women’s heterodox practices. In the 20th century, however, it was used by intellectual reformers as a tool to push women’s emancipation, and forcibly distanced from its “superstitious” Daoist roots. It was then adapted into the new “qigong practices” that were being born then for the use of Communist officials. With the Communist party’s distancing from qigong and in general from spiritual practices, nüdan too was abandoned. It was “rediscovered”, together with other health and spiritual practices, in the 1980s, with the relaxation of the ban on religion. Female alchemy is now taught again, both in China and in the West, and, again, reinvented. Chinese practitioners traveling or relocating to the West, or Western practitioners traveling to China have transmitted it outside of China in a fragmented way. In this process of transmission, teachers have used those elements of nüdan more resonant to them for political, social and spiritual reasons. We will look at 2 main examples, that of Liu Yafei, who teaches nudan in China and abroad from a strictly medical point of view, and that of Mantak Chia, a Thai practitioner of Chinese healing practices based in the US, who borrowed heavily from the nüdan theory and practice to produce a sexual manual for women.

Healing of Spirit: Negotiating the Definition of Health in Traditional Chinese Medicine
Emily Wu, University of San Francisco, USA

In California, acupuncture is the state licensed healing modality through which traditional Chinese medicine officially interacts with biomedicine. In addition, a wide range of other healing techniques within the broader traditional Chinese system—tuina massage, cupping, herbal formulae, qigong healing, divination, exorcistic rituals, and various cultivation techniques such as stretching exercises, breathing techniques, and dietary programs—are practiced by licensed acupuncturists and other (mostly unregulated) healers. I argue that the popularity of traditional Chinese medicine, the abundance of ethnically diverse practitioners of Chinese healing techniques, and politically active professional associations are making an impact on Western medical culture in two important ways. First, the holistic, multi-dimensional paradigm of traditional Chinese medicine challenges the conventional biomedical understanding of “health” (absence of undesirable physical conditions and symptoms) through enthusiastic practitioners, inquisitive patients, and curious biomedical physicians and nurses. Second, the competitive market forces these practitioners to become creative in order to sustain their practices, where the definition of “health” is often negotiated and reinterpreted. Through case studies, I will demonstrate how the practitioners venture between cultures and medical systems to help themselves and their patients understand, interpret, and define “health,” and how this new conception of “health” is affecting the way Americans understand medicine and healing in general.