Anatomy, Power & Scientific Language in China

A review of Dissecting Modernity: Anatomy and Power in the Language of Science in China, by David Luesink.

David Luesink’s dissertation is a brilliant analysis of the relationship between anatomical knowledge and power in China that contributes to the fields of both Science and Technology Studies and History. Luesink focuses on the transformative decade between 1910 — when disciples studied Confucian and medical classics in exclusive relationships with their masters — and 1920 — when professionally organized coteries of scientists and intellectuals controlled the terms of medical knowledge, both literally and metaphorically. Luesink interrogates the creation and use of this power to determine the boundaries of medical knowledge and practice by examining a select group of people who created the new language of Chinese anatomical science. Luesink keeps two local institutions — the Joint Terminology Committee (and its successor, the Scientific Terminology Committee, operative from 1916 to 1927) and the Jiangsu Provincial Education Association (JPEA) — and four individuals at the center of the story. Connecting his work to larger questions about the twentieth century, Luesink analyzes how the science and terminology of anatomy influenced the construction of Chinese modernity.

The core question driving this dissertation is how scientific modernity became a new “orthodox epistemology” in the early-twentieth century (p. 2). Luesink focuses on anatomy and dissection, which he states “came to be considered the necessary basis of [bio-]medicine and of all of science” (p. 3), and on the technology of language, or the question of how “to reform Chinese to speak scientifically” (p. 20). In this manner, Luesink’s work significantly advances our understanding of the central process in the world of medicine in twentieth-century China: that of scientific biomedicine overpowering and transforming indigenous medicine. Drawing inspiration from the Foucauldian concept of anatomo-politics (a modern state’s control of the populace by subjugating physical bodies with a variety of regulatory and discursive mechanisms), Luesink advances the neologism “anatomo-medical modernity” to link biomedicine’s dominance of Chinese medicine to the language of anatomy and the people and institutions that created this language. To this end, Luesink elucidates the power relations and fiscal resources that led to the creation of a new medical vocabulary that, in claiming to express a “modern” and “scientific” truth about the human body, possessed the power to overshadow indigenous medical terminology—and thereby Chinese medicine itself.

Formulated as seven chapters in two parts, the dissertation begins with an introduction that reviews the scholarship on state-building in the Republican era and biopower. Chapter 1, “Mundane Activities: The Work of the Joint Terminology Committee,” introduces the people and processes of the Committee as a means of illustrating the power of words — and their creators — to determine the boundaries of science in early twentieth century China. Using the Latourian definition of “mundane activities” to designate quotidian acts through which biopower disseminates and replicates itself, Luesink focuses on “the mundane power of dissection as the hidden power of the reductive sciences” (p. 43), thereby connecting anatomical language and the very act of cutting bodies to biomedicine’s displacement of indigenous medical practices and beliefs. Arguing that in order to understand how scientific power functions we must first examine the tools with which individuals create that power, Luesink makes the case for scientific language as one such important tool, and illustrates how the Joint Terminology Committee (JTC) created a language of anatomy in the 1910s. The chapter provides details of the various meetings of the JTC: who attended (editors, publishers, medical college administrators, medical missionaries, etc., with over 300 participants at one meeting); when and where the meetings were held (usually in Shanghai or nearby cities, beginning in February 1915); where they were announced and recorded (Luesink includes two tables of journals on p. 76); an explanation of how the JTC functioned (p. 81); and a synopsis of the meetings’ proceedings. By its fifth meeting, the Committee had standardized more than ten thousand terms (p. 82).

Where Chapter 1 traced the development of the Joint Terminology Committee, Chapter 2 does the same with the Jiangsu Provincial Education Association (JPEA), without losing track of its affiliate JTC. Luesink explains that the JPEA served as a transitional organization, filling the cultural and institutional vacuum that ensued after the 1905 abolition of the civil service exams, operating as Shanghai’s center for the New Culture and May Fourth movements (p. 107), and ultimately establishing key educational and professional institutions in secular society. Arguing that the full scope of the JPEA only makes sense when the work of the JTC is put at the center of its institutional history, Luesink illustrates how individuals working in the two organizations took part in the transition from late-Qing philology to the professionalization of science and medicine in the early twentieth century (pp. 114-120). He furthermore shows the temporal link between the standardization of medical terminology and the professionalization of medicine, and argues that the JPEA was central to both activities. This leads scholars to a new definition of state power in the early Republican era. Therefore, although both organizations ceased to exist when the Nationalist government became strong enough to establish similar institutions in 1927, Luesink demonstrates that they played pivotal roles in the creation of modern medicine in China.

Chapter 3 advances the notion of the “gospel of translation” with initial financial backing from the Rockefeller Foundation and the labor of medical missionaries, and later institutional support from Chinese professional associations (p. 124). The chapter introduces Anglo-American medical missionary activities in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries—principally through the personage of Philip B. Cousland—and the priorities of the Rockefeller Foundation’s China Medical Board, and links both to the issue of language. While medical missionaries overwhelmingly preferred English as a medium of medical instruction, some petitioned Rockefeller representatives to consider Chinese as the language of instruction in the Peking Union Medical College (PUMC), recognizing the need to train people more quickly and believing that Chinese instruction would be more expeditious (pp. 135-39). While the Rockefeller Foundation remained determined to establish an elite institution of medical education with exclusively English-language instruction, it did begin funding translation projects through its China Medical Board soon after the first meeting of the JTC (pp. 142-152). Cousland, as head of the China Medical Missionary Association’s Publication Committee and, separately, its Translation Bureau (based at the Cheeloo University School of Medicine), directed most of the projects that received funding from the China Medical Board. Chinese translators were of course central to this project, and Luesink introduces one such man, Zhu Wo’nong (pp. 156-160). Translation work eventually coalesced in the Translation Bureau located in northeastern China in the Shandong provincial capital of Jinan (p. 161).

Chapter 4 illustrates the work of the JTC in action, and demonstrates the connection between language and power by examining controversies surrounding particular terms that were debated in JTC sessions between 1916 and 1926. Leading the charge against JTC work was Japanese-educated Chen Fangzhi, who questioned both the logic of the chosen terms and the medical authority of the committee members themselves. However, the list of medical terms that the JTC created, having won approval from the Ministry of Education, did indeed hold the authority to block the publication of any book not adhering to its now standardized medical vocabulary. At least, it attempted to hold this authority, but a toothless and largely titular government in Beijing found itself unable to enforce the new standard, and authors continued to use their own words of choice in medical publications until 1927 (p. 207). Nonetheless, Luesink demonstrates that the Committee still had long-lasting influence, in that it established a precedent for standardizing anatomical language and thereby reified anatomical knowledge. Fully 71 percent of the terms approved by the JTC did not exist in the Chinese language prior to missionary translations of medical texts. This new terminology gave expression to an anatomical view of the human body, a view that ultimately led to the perception that Chinese medicine was “blind and inadequate for its inability to see, name, and dissect the multitudinous tissues of the body” (p. 185).

Chapters 5 through 7 constitute Part II of the dissertation, “Anatomy and Power.” Here Luesink explores in greater depth what he terms “anatomo-politics,” essentially biopower established through anatomical knowledge and activities. Careful not to divorce this power from the people who created and exercised it, he focuses in Chapter 5 on Dr. Tang Erhe. Tang was founder of a medical school in Beijing in 1912 and of the Republic of China Medico-Pharmaceutical Association (ROCMPA) in 1915; he was also editor for the Commercial Press medical books series, the Ministry of Education representative to the Joint Terminology Committee (JTC), and delegate chosen from the four-person provisional government of Wuchang to present Dr. Sun Yat-sen as President of the new Republic of China on January 1, 1912. Indeed, Dr. Tang was the person who “link[ed] medicine to power,” petitioning the government for the right to dissect human cadavers in 1912 which led to the 1913 Anatomy Law (p. 227), and the Ministry of Education in 1916 for standardized regulations of medical education (p. 296-297). Luesink’s focus on Tang Erhe, whose work has been little celebrated because he collaborated with the Japanese during the War of Resistance, rescues this central figure form historical oblivion. Luesink demonstrates conclusively that Dr. Tang, a leader in both politics and medicine, was the central figure in the standardization of anatomical knowledge and medical terminology in the 1910s.

Chapter 6 focuses on the travel diaries of Dr. Tang Erhe and PUMC anatomist Dr. E.V. Cowdry during their reconnaissance tours in Japan, the former in 1917 and the latter in 1919. In analyzing the two men’s journals Luesink deploys the term “anatomo-medical modernity,” and demonstrates that anatomy was the “umbrella discipline for modernizing elites in East Asia.” Far from being a discrete science, anatomy served as a gateway to all scientific pursuits (pp. 248-49). While previous chapters followed medical missionaries’ pursuit of Rockefeller funds for their translation projects, this chapter illustrates the profound faith that Doctors Tang and Cowdry had in anatomy as the foundational science of modern medicine. Furthermore, Doctors Tang and Cowdry were both sensitive to the fact that it took significant amounts of money to create anatomically-based scientific knowledge. Medical colleges and laboratories that produced such knowledge needed laboratory equipment, examination rooms, dissection tools, microscopes, professional salaries, X-ray machines, lighting and electricity, etc., and the sojourning anatomists, particularly Dr. Tang, paid special attention to the facilities and access to material (including human cadavers) at each institution they visited. Chapter 7 further elaborates this theoretical intervention, connecting the power of anatomical knowledge that was created in the project of standardizing scientific terminology to the sidelining of indigenous understandings of the human body and practitioners of Chinese medicine between 1915 and 1930. Not only did these two projects occur at the same historical moment, they both relied on the same logic of reductionism: reducing wholes to their parts and labeling each part so as to eliminate ambiguities. Luesink argues “that the coercion, reclassification of knowledge, and (self)-governmentalization of Chinese medicine resulted in its transformation as a new form of standardized medicine which must take into account the anatomo-medical view of the body” (p. 290). He furthermore asserts that not only Chinese medicine, but also Western medicine before it, were forced to adopt the “anatomo-medical view of the body,” which sublimated other understandings of the body and disease.

Once published, Luesink’s monograph will answer many important questions about this period of transition. Scholarship on the history of medicine in China clusters around three temporal nodes: early development of medicine in ancient China (often with a philological focus); shifts in medical practices and theories in the late imperial era; and medical developments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We know comparatively little about the individuals, relationships, and institutions that bridged the nineteenth- and twentieth-century divide. We also know relatively little about the historical actors who worked either to prevent or to promote the transition of Chinese medicine into the modern era. In uncovering the compelling history behind this project, David Luesink’s manuscript will take its place alongside that of scholars who have inspired him: Ruth Rogaski’s Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), the forthcoming work of Bridie Andrews, and the as yet unpublished dissertation of Sean Hsiang-lin Lei (When Chinese Medicine Encountered the State, 1910-1949, University of Chicago, 1999).

More importantly, aside from its close analysis of a largely overlooked decade in the history of Chinese medicine, Luesink’s work is a marriage of anthropological and historical approaches, of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and cultural history. He draws on noted anthropologists of Chinese medicine, including Judith Farquhar (Knowing Practice: The Clinical Encounter of Chinese Medicine. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994), Mei Zhan (Other-Worldly: Making Chinese Medicine through Transnational Frames. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), and Volker Scheid (Currents of Tradition in Chinese Medicine, 1626-2006. Seattle: Eastland Press, 2007), into conversation with historians of Chinese medicine. He applies Michel Foucault’s theories of biopower, governmentality, and the medical (anatomical) gaze throughout the dissertation, with attention to sociologists such as Bruno Latour as well as Foucauldian theorists, and even extends this analysis to include his new concept of anatomo-medical modernity. This work will indeed make a theoretical impact on the field of medical history as much as it contributes a new body of knowledge to the field of Chinese history.

Nicole Elizabeth Barnes
History Department
Boston College

Primary Sources

Joint Terminology Committee meeting minutes, 1916-1926
Rockefeller Foundation Archives
Beijing Municipal Archives
Nanjing Number Two Historical Archives
National Medical Journal [Zhonghua yixue zazhi 中華醫學雜誌]

Dissertation Information

University of British Columbia. 2012. 402 pp. Primary Advisor: Timothy Brook.


Image: “Practice room of Pathological Histology nat. med. college Peking, China.” With permission from the Peking University Health Science Center Archive (北京大学医学部档案馆).

Leave a Reply