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Chinese Herbalists and American Consumers in the Progressive Era

Last Wednesday, January 31st, Associate Professor of History at Claremont McKenna College Tamara Venit-Shelton visited UC Davis to discuss her paper on Chinese medicine in the United States. Venit-Shelton argues that, in the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s), Chinese herbalists drew in white American consumers with claims that their medicine was “natural.” Indeed, for turn-of-the-century Americans, medical care derived from physical therapy, herbs, minerals, and animal products often appealed more than the cocaine, laudanum, and morphine prescribed by mainstream physicians.

This meeting was held as part of the Research Initiative in Environments and Societies, directed by W. Turrentine Jackson Professor of Western U.S. History Louis S. Warren, which focuses on providing feedback on works-in-progress. Venit-Shelton noted that she is in the midst of polishing her paper, particularly in how it deals with the “discourse of natural medicine” and the extent to which Chinese herbalists “encountered, shaped, and employed” it to their own needs.

To that end, Venit-Shelton received feedback from two official commentators: Rebecca Egli, a doctoral candidate in the Department of History, and Assistant Professor of History Howard Chiang.

Egli suggested that Venit-Shelton should delve deeper into Progressive Era ridicule of natural remedies, and do more to highlight the divide between mainstream physicians and Chinese herbalists. She also wished to know more about how Chinese herbalists related to other Progressive Era alternative medical movements, such as those led by John Harvey Kellogg.

Faculty commentator Howard Chiang suggested to Venit-Shelton that perhaps Chinese medicine should not be viewed as “a coherent and static entity.” For Chiang, Chinese medicine is embodied as much by acupuncture and Tai chi as it is by the herbal medicine cited in the paper.

Chiang also thought the paper could do more to tie its discussion of the Progressive Era to that of Maoist China, specifically because in the mid-twentieth century there was a huge push for “Traditional Chinese Medicine” in the United States that has yet to be related to this earlier period.

More controversially, Chiang asked whether the concept of Chinese medicine has failed us entirely. If Chinese medicine evolved to such a large extent in the United States, at what point did it become unrecognizable compared to what was actually being practiced in China? Why, then, didn’t this form of localized Chinese herbalism fall under the rubric of “American” medicine?

Louis Warren added that Venit-Shelton should address the “perils of being reduced to a natural person.” If Chinese herbalists became associated with nature, did this lead to them being associated with savagery, much like Native Americans?

In her closing comments, Venit-Shelton said that she would work on incorporating everyone’s advice, and that this meeting would lead to a more effective social history on Chinese medicine in America, and, to a larger extent, the Chinese immigrant experience as a whole.


– Nicholas Garcia, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in the Department of History

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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