Cultural Encounters in Medicine: (Re)Constituting Traditional Medicine in Taiwan under Colonization, Modernity, and Exchange

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Virginia Tech


Today we have many alternative medicines, not a few of which connect back to aboriginal cultures. Some of these alternative medicines were born under the influence of European imperialism, as they were not "alternative" until modern empires and modern medicine came to these distant regions. The present study begins with a broad question: how did conceptions of the relationship between modern Western medicine and traditional local non-Western medicine come to be? To explore the historical origins of these two conceptions, I focus herein on Japanese colonial Taiwan (1895–1945), where modern medicine became dominant while traditional medicine also flourished. My research finds that the historical realities of colonial Taiwan were not reflected in the progressive narrative of medicine. According to this narrative, modern medicine became dominant around the world while traditional medicines were swept into the ash heap of history because only modern medicine was the true, effective science of preventing, diagnosing, and treating physical ailments. The history of colonial Taiwan teaches us a much different lesson: practitioners of traditional medicine there were a significant part of the public health system during the colonial period. For example, they rallied against the plague in the late 19th century, diagnosing and treating patients when antibiotics had yet to be developed. Even so, the island witnessed an institutional medical shift, in which licensed practitioners of modern medicine deified modern medicine and denigrated traditional medicine, labeling the latter "primitive" and "non-medicine." In response, practitioners of traditional medicine produced new narratives aiming to challenge this colonial boundary between medicine and non-medicine. These practitioners' fundamental argument was that traditional medicine, though epistemologically different from modern medicine, was still legitimate medicine. From this effort, we now have the widely held belief today that both modern medicine and traditional medicine are legitimate, but distinct, medicines. This historical outcome of colonial resistance occurred worldwide. In my study, I identify the social, political, and colonial contexts of medical resistance in Japanese Taiwan, revealing their roots in issues related to inequality, distrust, economic affordability, and conceptions of body and health care.



traditional medicine, medical modernity, colonization, medical resistance, cultural encounter