Medicine in China during the Late Modern Era — Yuchen

In the last blog post, I looked at medicine in Europe during the Late Modern Era. It was a time period marked by numerous advances in medical biology, microanatomy, histology and other important subdivisions of medicine that represent the emergence of modern medicine. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, China was forced out of its isolated state. The absolute authority of traditional Chinese medicine was also challenged by the intruding western medical tradition.


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Map of the Qing Dynasty

China in the 17th and the 18th centuries was going through a tumultuous time. The peace and prosperity of its last dynastic era were nearing its end. Early Qing emperors have devoted themselves to resolving the conflicts between the nomadic tribes and the peasant communities and have tripled China’s territory. Many measures were also taken to promote economic growth and cultural unification.

The publishing boom of encyclopedias in the early Qing era encouraged compilation of medical texts and of other academic fields to capture and celebrate Chinese cultural heritage. Gujin Tushu Jicheng (The Collection of Ancient and Modern Works) was published in 1726 under the order of the emperor. This encyclopedia contains an impressive number of 10,000 chapters— 520 of which are on the topic of medicine. Meanwhile, Qing Chinese doctors continued to develop and improve treatment methods to combat the epidemic of febrile diseases (diseases caused by fever or “wenbing 温病” in Chinese). (Cohen) (Shen)


The Industrial Revolution

However, later Qing rulers became increasingly autocratic and despotic, particularly after the Emperor Qianlong. China’s seclusion policy contributed to its further isolation. While the Western world was experiencing great progress during the Industrial Revolution, China remained a feudal country heavily reliant upon agriculture. (Cohen)

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Photo of Christian Missionaries

The rise of Western medicine in China is closely correlated with the increasing influence of the West as well as with the weakening of the Qing dynasty. At the beginning of the 19th century, Christian missionaries and doctors greatly contributed to the spread of Christianity and Western medicine in China. Countless Western medical texts were translated into Chinese, introducing Chinese doctors to Western medical practices. Several medical schools and hospitals were also established with the help of foreign doctors. (Cohen)

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Smokers during the Epidemic of Opium Addiction

The First and Second Opium War further contributed to the invasion of foreign powers. In 1839, in response to the epidemic of opium addiction caused by the opium trade, the Qing government, led by the government official Lin Zexu confiscated and destroyed more than 20,000 chests of opiums— around 1,400 tons. The act angered the British threatened their economic interests since they were the major traders of opium that were exported from India to China. As a result, the First Opium War broke out. After three years of bloodshed, the war ended with the British capturing Nanjing, forcing China to sign the first unequal treaty– the Treaty of Nanjing. The treaty not only demanded the Qing government to pay Britain a large indemnity, to cede Hong Kong for a century, to open new trading ports to Britain, but it also marked the beginning of an era of unequal treaties between Western powers and China. (Pletcher)

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Bilingual Page of the Treaty of Nanjing

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Rudolph Virchow

“Medicine is a social science, and politics nothing but medicine on a grand scale.”                                           

      —- Rudolph Virchow  (“Father of Pathology”)

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Sun Yat-sen 孙中山

This famous adage suitably describes the career and life of Sun Yat-sen (Sun Zhongshan)– leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party and the father of modern China. He is not only well known for overthrowing the Qing dynasty and founding the democratic government, but also for his promotion of Western medicine and other essential elements of modernization in China. Sun moved to Hawaii at an early age to live with his older brother. He received education in the Anglican Iolani School and the Oahu College in Hawaii before returning to China to continue his studies. He first attended the Canton Hospital Medical School affiliated with the Boji Hospital– China’s first modern hospital. Later, he transferred to the College of Medicine for Chinese in Hong Kong to complete his doctoral degree. (Young)

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Imperial Threats

Despite great efforts, Western medicine still faced the challenge of Chinese people’s distrust and rooted preference for traditional treatments. Western-trained doctors were mostly practicing at missionary hospitals only established in major cities. The absent of recognition for his medical qualification partly contributed towards Sun’s involvement in politics. As a medical doctor, Sun observed and analyzed China’s problems from a medical perspective. Indeed, China was “the sick man of Asia,” both literally and metaphorically.  He believed that as a physician, he could only save a limited number of lives, but overthrowing the Qing dynasty could save innumerable people. (Lee)

At the conclusion of the 19th century, the relationship between traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine in China was complex– similar to China’s relation with the West. However, the tumultuous era marked the beginning of China’s westernization in various fields and the start of integration of different medical traditions in the country.

Works Cited

Bilingual Pages in the Treaty of Nanjing. 1842. Imperialism in China Webquest, Accessed 12 Feb. 2019.

The Cambridge Seven, circa 1885. Lux Mundi, Accessed 12 Feb. 2019.

Cohen, Leslie. “Changing Role of Traditional Chinese Medicine During the Qing Dynasty.” Decoded Past, 27 Oct. 2014, Accessed 12 Feb. 2019.

Gujin Tushu Jicheng. 18 Oct. 2016. Wikimedia Commons,,_Volume_056_(1700-1725).djvu. Accessed 12 Feb. 2019.

Kircher, Athanasius. Athanasii Kircheri China monumentis (1667) “Frontispicio.” Wikimedia Commons,…_China_monumentis_(1667)_%22Frontispicio%22_(22629197626).jpg. Accessed 12 Feb. 2019.

Lee, Kam-Hing, et al. “Dr Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925): medical doctor and China’s founding president.” Medical History, vol. 54, no. 6, 2013, pp. 356-58, doi:10.11622/smedj.2013121. Accessed 12 Feb. 2019.

Lin Zexu. Pinterest, Accessed 12 Feb. 2019.

The Opium War. Civilian Military Intelligence Group,

Pletcher, Kenneth. “Opium Wars.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2 Nov. 2018, Accessed 12 Feb. 2019.

Preece, Warren E., and Robert L. Collison. “History of Encyclopaedias.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 8 Sept. 2016, Accessed 12 Feb. 2019.

“Qing Dynasty.” Think Link, 2016, Accessed 12 Feb. 2019.

Sächsische Maschinenfabrik in Chemnitz, Germany, 1868. 23 Mar. 2008. Wikimedia Commons, Accessed 12 Feb. 2019.

The Signing and Sealing of the Treaty of Nanjing. 1842. Imperialism in China Webquest, Accessed 12 Feb. 2019.

Sun Yat-sen. 2 Apr. 2017. Wikimedia Commons, Accessed 12 Feb. 2019.

Young, Kue-Hing. “Sun Yat-sen: From Medicine to Revolution.” CMAJ.JAMC, vol. 112, no. 5, 8 Mar. 1975, pp. 614-16, Accessed 12 Feb. 2019.

“神农氏” [“Shen Nong”]. 神农, June 2003,

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