Chinese Medicine in 20th c. France & Italy


A review of La médecine chinoise dans la pratique médicale en France et en Italie, de 1930 à nos jours. Représentations, réception, tentatives d’intégration (Chinese Medicines, in Medical Practice in France and Italy, from 1930 to today. Representations, Reception, Attempts of Appropriation), by Lucia Candelise.

Lucia Candelise’s dissertation examines the perception and practice of Chinese medicine in twentieth-century France and Italy. This work, which combines history, anthropology and ethnography, is influenced notably by micro-historical and comparative approaches. It draws on a broad range of sources: journals published by acupuncture associations, manuscripts and archival documents, dissertations written on acupuncture, interviews with thirty French and forty-three Italian acupuncturists, and extensive fieldwork carried out in hospitals (four in Paris and Strasbourg, and one in Milan). Candelise also incorporates a study on Chinese medical consultations, the practice of acupuncture, teaching and training in action, all filmed by the author. This dissertation, which is the first systematic academic work to shed light on the history of the reception of Chinese medicine in France and Italy, is divided into four parts and six chapters, an introduction, a conclusion, informative appendices and a DVD.

Ed. note: This review belongs to a new series on our website, called “DR World”, dedicated to reviewing dissertations from around the world written in languages other than English, including French, German and others. If you would like to have your dissertation reviewed here, or to contribute a review, please contact

The first and second parts of the dissertation investigate the history of how Chinese medicine was received and communicated in twentieth-century France (Chapters 1 and 2) and Italy (Chapters 3). In Chapter 1, focusing on France from the 1930s to the 1960s, Lucia Candelise first reminds us of the intellectual movements on the fringes of mainstream medicine that existed in the French medical world in the beginning of the twentieth century – vitalism, neo-hippocratism and homeopathy for instance – which facilitated the dissemination of Chinese acupuncture when it was introduced by George Soulié de Morant (1878 -1955) in the 1920s. Candelise reconstructs Soulié de Morant’s biography: he spent several years in China in the first two decades of the twentieth century, as a member of the French diplomatic corps. Upon his return to France, he devoted himself to popularizing Chinese acupuncture, through his own practice and various publications.

Candelise analyzes the conditions that allowed Soulié de Morant, who was not himself a physician but had learned Chinese medicine, to become a key figure in the spread of Chinese acupuncture in France. The relationships he had with the intellectual elites of the time and with medical doctors that he himself trained allowed Chinese acupuncture to be practiced in some public hospitals as early as 1932. As the author shows, Soulié de Morant had many famous disciples, such as Albert Chamfrault (1909-1969) and Roger de la Füye (1890-1961), who shaped the development of acupuncture in France, playing important roles in the national acupuncture associations created after the Second World War. Candelise reconstructs the history of these associations (such as La Société Française d’Acupuncture), the publications they established, and the different ideas that guided their adherents in their work of popularizing acupuncture. Candelise shows that, for all these historical actors, Chinese medicine was reduced quite simply to acupuncture. The author also examines the long struggle undertaken by the Syndicat National des Médecins Acupuncteurs de France, created in 1947, to make acupuncture a practice reserved exclusively to certified Western medical doctors, and a recognized and reimbursable treatment within the French public medical insurance system.

Chapter 2 explores the development of acupuncture in France from the 1960s to the present day, in our ever more globalized times. Candelise highlights the fact that the increasing interest in acupuncture in the 1970s, fuelled particularly by the media, went hand-in-hand with an increase in the number of associations, publications, congresses, and students studying acupuncture. She recounts the numerous debates within the various associations – including La Société Internationale d’Acupuncture, L’École Européenne d’Acupuncture, L’Association Scientifique des Médecins Acupuncteurs de France and others – and the research programs they carried out.

Candelise especially shows how acupuncturists in France had to choose between two dominant contemporary schools of thought. The first, represented notably by two figures discussed at length in this chapter – the aforementioned Albert Chamfrault and the Hanoi-born physician Nguyen Van Nghi (1909-1999) – attached great importance to scrutinizing classical Chinese medical texts in depth, chiefly The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon (Huangdi neijing) and The Book of Difficulties (Nan jing), to understand acupuncture better. The second school, represented principally by Roger de la Füye, placed more emphasis on the “modernization” of acupuncture by evacuating ancient “mysteries” and “mysticisms” from acupuncture and attempting to explain it in terms of modern neurophysiology. Candelise narrates the progressive institutionalization of acupuncture: its recognition as a legitimate and reimbursable therapy, mainly used for its analgesic properties, and its inclusion in the academic curricula at public universities from 1987 onwards.

The second part (Chapter 3) looks into the history of acupuncture in Italy. As the author stresses, the practice of acupuncture began in Italy only in the 1970s, and thus much later than in France. Lucia Candelise shows that the French associations and its leading figures had a strong influence on the development of acupuncture in Italy. As in France, it was soon decided that acupuncture, despite the fact that it has not been medically “proven”, should be a medical treatment that could only be administered by physicians qualified in Western medicine. The content of the university acupuncture curricula was also extremely similar to that used in France. However from the mid-1980s Italian acupuncturists have turned their attention towards the Chinese medicine taught in Great Britain and in China, and consequently have widened their interest in all forms of traditional Chinese medicine. Candelise discusses at length the work of Federazione Italiana delle Società di Agopuntura (FISA) to make Chinese medicine a recognized therapy in the Italian medical establishment.

The third part (Chapter 4) and fourth part (Chapters 5 and 6) of the dissertation explores the current landscape of acupuncture and acupuncturists in France and Italy; Candelise’s considerations and her methodology turn towards the sociological and anthropological. Chapter 4 compares and contrasts the situation of acupuncture and acupuncturists in these two countries. Candelise investigates the social background of acupuncturists (gender, ethnicity, age, generalist or specialist); she also analyzes the discourses of these physicians to help understand the motivations that led them to become trained in and practice acupuncture, and the ways that they fashion their identities and how they understand acupuncture in their work. From this comparative perspective, the author underlines the differences between the two countries. While in both France and Italy, more women than men study and practice acupuncture, we find a greater interest for acupuncture among specialists in Italy than in France. Acupuncture, the author thus shows, occupies different positions in a medical landscape dominated by biomedicine.  She also shows that while some motivations and concerns are common – “a return to observing the patients” (revenir à observer le malade, p.428) as opposed to “taking the human body and dividing it into slices and sections” (prendre le corps humain et le diviser en tranches et en secteurs, p.429) – the discourses on the perception of acupuncture also diverge in these two countries. Whereas French physicians for the most part considered acupuncture and Chinese medicine as “complementary” or “different” from biomedicine, and thus “additional”, Italian doctors saw Chinese medicine from a more “integrative”, and thus potentially “replacing”, perspective. Chapters 5 and 6 give the reader an illustration of how acupuncture is understood, used and taught in particular public hospitals in France and Italy; parts of these surveys are recorded on video.

This dissertation offers a very rich and detailed reconstruction of the introduction, institutionalization, and development of Chinese acupuncture in twentieth-century France and Italy. The prominent place given to French and Italian physicians’ discourses, collected during Candelise’s fieldwork, allows us to grasp how Chinese medicine, and acupuncture notably, is understood, interpreted, and continually defined and redefined in different times and in various social and cultural contexts.

Florence Bretelle-Establet
Chargée de Recherche
CNRS / Université Paris Diderot – Paris 7
Department Website

Primary Sources

French and Italian Journals related to acupuncture from 1947 to 2008
Manuscripts and unprinted texts issued from French and Italian syndicates of acupuncture and universities
Interviews submitted to Anselm Strauss’  Grounded Theory Procedures and Techniques
The private collection of Evelyn Soulié de Morant

Dissertation Information

École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca. 2008. 656pp. Dissertation originally written in French. Primary Advisor: Françoise Sabban.


Image: “Les pouls chinois” in George Soulié de Morant, Précis de la vraie acuponcture chinoise: Doctrine, diagnostic, thérapeutique (Paris: Éditions Mercure de France, 1971), first published in 1934. Université du Québec à Chicoutimi.

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