From Alchemy to Science

Daoist Healthcare in Contemporary China

In: Review of Religion and Chinese Society
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  • 1 Assistant Professor of Chinese Religions, Department of Religion, University of Hawaiʻi-Mānoa, Honolulu, HI, USA

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Abstract

In premodern China, Daoist priests cultivated and traded herbal drugs. Many priests served as doctors for royal and aristocratic families. Given this long history, it is not surprising that Daoist institutions in present-day China have tapped into a demand for traditional healing. Many temples offer clinics for walk-in patients, and some have established research centers devoted to studying traditional medicine. This paper begins with a vignette from a contemporary temple on Mount Yaowang 藥王山 (Mount Pharma-king), where leaders are currently redeveloping an ancient temple into a research center. On the surface, Mount Yaowang merely carries on the traditions of the past. Throughout the multi-acre compound, visitors are greeted with numerous placards, brochures, and exhibitions emphasizing how the knowledge of Mount Yaowang’s past Daoist doctors still lives on today. Beneath this veneer of antiquity, however, a new and different form of Daoist healthcare is emerging. To recognize the new forms of Daoist healing, this paper builds toward a long-range understanding of Daoist healthcare in traditional and twentieth-century China. The author concludes that despite the apparent conservatism of Daoist leaders’ incorporation of the past, it is actually a radical departure.

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