Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Problem with Oriental Medicine

As a practitioner of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, I cringe a little every time I see the phrase “Oriental medicine.” It shows up everywhere in my profession: in the names of professional organizations and journals, colleges and clinics, on business cards and websites. I don’t care enough about it to air my grievance in letters to editors or diatribes against my colleagues, but this is my blog so I’ll feel free to vent here.

What is wrong with “Oriental medicine?” For starters, “oriental” is a terribly outdated word with colonialist overtones. Something or someone is “oriental” – literally “of the East” (from the Latin oriens, “rising sun”) only from the vantage point of the Occident, i.e., the countries of Europe and the Western Hemisphere. The term developed to distinguish between the powerful “civilized West” and the “mysterious East” that was to be conquered and exploited over hundreds of years of warfare and subjugation. For us to call what we do “Oriental medicine” is about as anachronistic as African-Americans referring to themselves as negroes. Look up the word “oriental” in the dictionary. My American Heritage College Dictionary lists this among the definitions:

"Oriental. Offensive. Used as a disparaging term for an Asian person."

Part of the problem with the word “Oriental” is the implications of strangeness, exoticism, inferiority, and weakness that lie embedded in the term. I suspect that some acupuncturists secretly relish the former associations (“I am a qigong master and an initiate into Oriental mysteries, and I can cure you”), but I submit that none of us would like to be associated with weakness and inferiority, especially in implied contrast with Western – or should I say “Occidental?” – medicine. For a detailed analysis of the Western conceptualization of the “Oriental” as Other, I refer the interested reader to Edward Said’s landmark book titled (aptly) Orientalism.

I have heard arguments in support of “Oriental medicine,” based on the notion of inclusiveness. Following this reasoning, calling our profession “traditional Chinese medicine” or some such would alienate the Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, and other non-Chinese practitioners. This may be true, but on top of the derogatory connotations of the word "oriental," the term is in fact overly inclusive: we don't typically mean to include the traditional medicines of the Middle East and India, for instance, when we say "Oriental medicine" - yet, clearly, they are Oriental regions as defined historically and etymologically. I think we should reject “traditional Chinese medicine” for an entirely other reason: because it (the “TCM” of post-Mao China) is a clearly defined style of medicine that not everybody in our profession practices. So what should we call the set of therapies that we collectively practice? Why not simply “East Asian medicine?” One non-Asian practitioner I have come across objects to the term “Asian medicine” because he thinks it discriminates against white acupuncturists (!) But I think that “East Asian medicine” is a purely descriptive term denoting the geographical origin of our art and science in the eastern part of Asia. In fact, under the entry for the word “Asian,” my dictionary states:

"Usage Note: The term Asian is now preferred for persons of South and East Asian ancestry, such as Indians, Southeast Asians, Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese, in place of Oriental, an older term for some of these groups. Oriental has been objected to because it suggests racial rather than cultural identity and identifies the place of origin in terms of its location relative to the West (that is, “from the East”), rather than in absolute terms."

Extending this logic beyond the people in an area to a form of medicine that originated and was developed in various countries within that area, I find “East Asian medicine” to be an accurate, objective, and inclusive term. Why it might be perceived as offensive, or exclusionary, or inferior in any way to “Oriental medicine,” I cannot figure out. “Oriental” is a word best reserved for rugs, if that. Let’s drop it and join the 21st century.

1 comment:

d. moll, said...

I think your point is interesting and well stated. I certainly have a problem with the term Traditional Chinese Medicine because it isn't, but it does describe a type of training. I have both Chinese and Japanese acupuncture listed on my card and this sparks many a dialog about the origins and differences of each. Geographically in Santa Cruz, California we share the same teutonic plate as Japan and China. We acatually have more in common with the Phillopines than Sacramento. But the point is really that China and Japan are sharing the same plate. Perhaps "Pacific Rim Medicine" is the nomenclature of the 21st century.