Asian Medicines and Covid-19: An Introduction

From the Series: Responding to an Unfolding Pandemic: Asian Medicines and Covid-19

Photo by Theresia Hofer.

The idea for this Hot Spots series emerged in early March 2020, as the epidemic was moving from Asia to Europe and North America. The essays presented here were written during the months of March and April 2020, and therefore roughly relate to events and debates unfolding during that time period of the pandemic.

As three long-term colleagues, we have collaborated on Asian medical—specifically Tibetan (Sowa Rigpa)—projects in the past (Craig and Gerke 2016; Gerke and van der Valk 2019). Here, we bring together a selection of eighteen historical, sociocultural, and medical responses to the current pandemic from Chinese and TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), Daoist, Sowa Rigpa, Ayurveda, Japanese Kampo, South Korean, and Vietnamese contexts.

As waves of epidemic disease have swept through the early twenty-first century, a contemporary anthropology of epidemics has also emerged (Keck and Lynteris 2018; Lynteris and Poleykett 2018; Kelly, Keck, and Lynteris 2019). Anthropological insights on Ebola, MERS (Cabalion et al. 2018), and SARS (Kleinman and Watson 2005), have helped to make sense of these diseases in biopolitical and cultural terms. Anthropologists have also contributed in meaningful ways to critical public health policies and interventions in epidemic hot spots. Questions of the origins and the complex impacts of epidemics on society have equally been taken up by historians of medicine (e.g., Hanson 2010; Mukharji 2012; Mason 2016; Bell 2019). Still, Covid-19 has propelled all of us into new and uncharted territory, at once scholarly and personal. With the current pandemic, scholars have taken to online forums such as Somatosphere, Anthrodendum, and this Hot Spots series. At the time of this writing, all twenty-one contributors of this series—scattered across three continents and eleven countries—are in some form of lock-down, working from home.

Not all essays deal specifically with Asian medicine, but all share a focus on how societies in Asia are addressing this pandemic. In this vein, we included more general historical (Johnston; McGrath) and anthropological (DiMoia; Lynteris) analyses, since they touch on topics such as race, Sinophobia, religion, and public health—elements which also emerge as important issues in other essays. These contributions thus chart the terrain across which debates around Asian medicines and Covid-19 are playing out.

The core of this collection explores Asian medical responses to the pandemic along three analytical axes: first, discussions of disease cause, prevention, and treatment; second, engagements with the ways “medicine” emerges within and between the domains of “religion,” “science,” and the state; and third, analyses of the ways that (mis)information is circulating and being deployed for political, commercial, and public health aims. The sequence of articles—beginning in China, moving on to Tibet, Korea, Japan, and India—roughly follow these three themes, although there are significant points of synergy between these regional designations.

When it comes to understanding the causes of Covid-19 as well as modalities of prevention and treatment, we offer diverse perspectives from Sowa Rigpa and Chinese medicine in particular (Cuomu; Gerke; Ploberger; Peng and Hsu; Sun and Hsu; Tidwell). We draw readers’ attention to the ways that translations (and innovations) are occurring between concepts and across historical periods: what is a virus, what is treatment, what counts as prevention and why? Historians (Johnston; McGrath) discuss pre-modern definitions of virulent “pathogens,” while practitioners (Cuomu; Arya and van der Valk) demonstrate the never-ending dynamics of living traditions through more-than-biomedical interpretations. New terms have been coined and old terms have been engaged in new ways as part of the cultural and medical sense-making that is occurring in the wake of SARS-CoV-2. Classical concepts now often glossed as “virus” (Cuomu) are given new meanings by medical practitioners during this pandemic. These efforts at epidemic interpretation between biomedical and Asian medical ways of knowing are at once necessary and contingent, but also susceptible to misinterpretation when rewriting the past of pre-laboratory medical concepts (Cunningham 2002).

We decided to include original translations of historical epidemic formulas from the Chinese (Peng and Hsu; Sun and Hsu), some of which have been utilized as TCM recommendations for Covid-19. Given the ways that Chinese medical knowledge and treatment strategies have been subject to dismissive, biased, and (mildly) xenophobic responses even from top-tiered scientific journals such as Nature, we think these formulas, not easily accessible otherwise, deserve further attention, both empirically and conceptually. Considering current approaches that avoid critical reflection on the power dynamics, methodological conundrums, and epistemic violence implicit in the application of biomedically biased “evidence-based medicine” to Asian scholarly medicines, these formulas call for a broader appreciation of what counts as “evidence” during times of crisis and “disaster capitalism.” Furthermore, the interfaces between science and religion within Asian medicine(s) are resurfacing in multiple ways. The rise and spread of Covid-19 is being understood within specific “body ecologic” (Hsu 2007) frameworks, wherein a pathogen co-emerges (and is treated) in interdependence with the particularities of climate and season (Peng and Hsu), astrological cycles, and morally infused human–nonhuman interactions (Arya and van der Valk).

Finally, the epidemiological and social impacts of this pandemic reflect a larger biopolitics of pandemics that, in turn, is bound up with forms of “viral” transmission of knowledge about the virus itself, as well as its causes, conditions of contagion, and possibilities for cure. This pandemic has been a source of (mis)information through social media (Tomar) and has led to “infodemic” risks of Sinophobic prejudice (Lynteris)—which echo xenophobic fears of “foreigners” and “the other” from the past (McGrath). At the same time, this virtual circulation of information about Covid-19 in Asian (medical) circles has also encouraged forms of subaltern activism among medical practitioners (Sheldon), and allowed for a renewed valuation of their unique expertise beyond biomedical determinism (Tidwell). Unprecedented levels of governmental surveillance and control, public health hegemonies of state-orchestrated “medical pluralism,” and the reinforcement of legitimacy along with political propaganda come right to the fore, as DiMoia describes in the case of South Korea. Among AYUSH traditions in India, these dynamics have led to contested knowledge politics (Banerjee), tensions between Ayurveda and public health actors (Payyappallimana), and restrictive state intervention in the distribution of Tibetan preventative pills (Gerke).

Across the essays, we also encounter other forms of information that have been resuscitated and reclaimed from Asian medical histories: mascots, protective deities, and amulets become powerful technologies of the self, talismans of hope, belonging, and resilience in troubled times. Some stand out as endearing characters in times of social distancing, such as the panda bear wearing a face mask: a mascot of a Kampo pharmaceutical company in Japan (thanks to Theresia Hofer for this image). Some of the essays reveal stories of how pre-modern ideas of contagion (Conrad and Wujastyk 2010) are resurfacing in the present. For example, Stanley-Baker highlights how emergency field hospitals built in Wuhan, China, were named after Daoist protector deities, an act that reflects the intertwined nature of religious and traditional medical responses to epidemics, “symbolically placing these biomedical hospitals in a distinctly Chinese history of medical development.” Likewise, historical images of contagion become powerful tools to strengthen identity in times of crisis. Johnston points to the Japanese “epidemic deity” Amabie, currently resurfacing on Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare Covid-19 awareness posters; the deity “resonates historically as a uniquely Japanese image, reinforcing nativist narratives in a time of national crisis.”

Another key theme that reflects this collection’s threefold focus on knowledge, practice, and politics is the tension between governments and representatives of Asian medical systems, specifically the ways in which traditional medical practitioners can or cannot contribute preventive or curative measures to Covid-19. Governmental control often makes traditional medical resources invisible, such as Kampo therapies in Japan (Hofer), or relegates them to state-supported “ethnic” subcategories, such as Sowa Rigpa in China (Tidwell), from where, as Tidwell shows, they can still be independently tracked and documented through social media.

We also note that we are too early in the pandemic for our series to cover the various fields of collateral epidemic damage. What are the economic losses to the Asian medical industry at this moment and over the next months to come? What about the loss of employment, the waste of raw and already processed materia medica in the unused medicines during long periods of lock-down? Or the overdemand of herbs now extremely popular in TCM formulas (Ploberger; Sun and Hsu)? Given the environmental impacts of global lock-down that have been marked as positive—represented by images of clear skies over Delhi, Kathmandu, Beijing—we also find ourselves asking: in what ways might materia medica rebound in this moment of ecological and economic stilling? Wildlife trade, temporarily shut down, might lead to long-term reformulations of Asian recipes that use animal ingredients.

To conclude, what stands out and frequently interlinks these eighteen essays are questions of governance and contagion: How do ideas of contagion emerge, change, and become politicized in the contested places where Asian medicine(s) operate, where they are often subaltern knowledge peripheral to public health concerns? Who decides what counts as prevention or cure in times of crisis? Beyond the politics of epidemic control, what are visions of the future? Drawing on examples from Vietnam and Japan, Mohacsi invites us to consider novel perspectives of “viral scaling,” moving from “global health” to “planetary health.” This might trigger a process of what in Japanese is called “experimental coexistence” (kyōsei 共生), learning to live with other life forms in more beneficial ways. We envision this series to draw readers toward creative engagement and further research into such directions.


The writing of this introduction, as well as the editing of this Hot Spots series, was supported (for Gerke and van der Valk) by the FWF Austrian Science Fund (grant 30804) through the University of Vienna, and (for Craig) by the Claire Garber Goodman Fund, Department of Anthropology, Dartmouth College.


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