Lecture Series

07 December 2021


How Chinese Medicine Became German:
Holism, Systems, and Free Flow


Volker Scheid


The Holism (zhengti guannian, 整体观念) is often seen as one of the essential features of Chinese medicine. Professor Volker Scheid’s research examines why and when this seemingly innate concept became associated with Chinese medicine and how the concept of "holism" was introduced to European countries, such as Germany, exchanged and developed between Chinese and Western contexts. The concept of holism as it is applied now in both China and the West originated in 18th-century Europe, where "conservative holism" and "progressive holism" emerged in response to the demand of European societies and scientific developments at the time and were later developed by the British biologist Arthur George Tansley. The present-day concept of holism was derived from the ecosystemic ideas of the British biologist Arthur George Tansley, and eventually, through Jan Smuts' application of this concept, the term "holism" was born.

Professor Scheid divides the ways in which traditional Chinese medicine coincides and integrates holism into three genealogies. The first claims that traditional Chinese medicine was gradually integrated with holism and completed its scientific discourse in response to China’s modernization from the 1930s to the 1980s, when intellectuals absorbed and applied dialectical approaches and ideas of a system. The second genealogy is intimately related to holistic Chinese medicine in the Western context when traditional Chinese philosophies were translated and circulated in the West. Traditional Chinese medicine and Chinese culture were perceived as holistic instead of reductionist Western medicine and the modern West in the "San Francisco Renaissance" and the "counterculture movement" of the 1950s and 1970s. The third spectrum combines systematic science with the previous two genealogical paths. On the one hand, systemic science resonated with the "counterculture movement;" on the other hand, traditional Chinese thoughts and Chinese medicine were linked to systemic science because of their holistic nature.

So, is the "holistic" as a constructed and differentiated concept a characteristic of traditional Chinese medicine? This is the question that Volker Scheid leaves us with at the end.

Prof. Volker Scheid is an Affiliated Scholar at the Max Planck Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte (Berlin) and Visiting Professor at the University of Westminster (London), where he was Director of the EASTmedicine (East Asian Sciences and Traditions in Medicine) Research Group from 2004 to 2018. His academic research focuses on exploring the transformations of Chinese medicine from the seventeenth century to the present from an interdisciplinary perspective that draws on history, anthropology, areas and science studies. His goal is to find a way of re-thinking Chinese medicine that emerges organically from the history of Chinese medicine itself rather than approaching it through the mythologies of practitioner perspectives or the epistemic biases of the western academe. He is also a practitioner of Chinese medicine for almost forty years.

About Lecture Series

The Lecture Series is an annual event revolved around a theme curated and presented by Media Lab, inviting scholars and artists from different fields to engage in a dialogue between art, technology, and philosophy to explore critical issues in media studies.