Potency, Effectiveness, Efficacy: Boundary Problems and the Making of “Minority Medicines” in 20th Century China

7 Mar 2024
4:00 pm - 5:30 pm

470 Stephens Hall

Event Type

Stacey Van Vleet
Assistant Professor of History, University of California, Berkeley

In the mid-1970s, the emergence of a new academic field dedicated to the “medical history of minority nationalities” (民族医学史) led Chinese scholars to grapple with twin boundary problems: the boundaries between traditional scholarly cultures, as well as between “science” and “religion.” The medical system deriving from the Four Tantras, a 12th century Tibetan- language text widely adopted within Buddhist monastic medical colleges across China’s Inner Asian frontiers, posed a particular problem for conceptualizing medical history in both ethnic and modern disciplinary terms. This talk will examine how the scholar Cai Jingfeng (1928-2011) sought to solve these twin boundary problems through his discussion of Buddhist “medical ethics” (医德or 医学伦理) and Tibetan medical effectiveness. Contrasting his framework with debates internal to the Four Tantras tradition, I will suggest how an analytic reorientation towards medical “potency” (Tib. nus pa) sheds light on the significance of boundary problems and the entanglement of medical ethics and efficacy.

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