Vietnamese Traditional Medicine: A Social History

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Dr. C. Michele Thompson’s book “Vietnamese Traditional Medicine: A Social History” is the culmination of years of research and a series of serendipitous events that led her to this intriguing and often ignored subject.

Dr. Thompson, a professor of history at SCSU, grew up surrounded by Western history: her father taught European history and her mother taught romance languages. She wanted to try something new in college and took every class she could on Asia, from anthropology to political science. She ended up moving to Taiwan to teach English and became proficient in Chinese while working there. While living in Taiwan, Thompson made a trip to Thailand for vacation based on the casual recommendation of a friend. Upon arrival she fell in love with Southeast Asia and was determined to study it more.

After returning to the US to get her doctorate, Thompson needed one more class to have a full load for the semester. “I was looking for something interesting and someone was offering a course on the history of medicine, science, and technology in Victorian England. I’ve always had a strong interest in the natural world. I thought ‘why don’t I take that class.’ So I fell in love with the history of medicine too,” said Dr. Thompson.

 

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In “Vietnamese Traditional Medicine: A Social History” Thompson explores how Vietnamese medicine has changed (and stayed the same) throughout history. For several centuries Vietnam was dominated by Han China, which had a profound effect on Vietnam. “Speaking and writing Chinese was the mark of aristocracy in Vietnam. What came to be viewed as elite medicine was very much influenced not just by imported medical texts but by the texts being in Chinese,” said Thompson. Dr. Thompson also investigates how Vietnamese medicine influenced China. For example cinnamon, commonly produced in and exported from Vietnam, plays an important role in Chinese traditional medicine.

However, Thompson goes beyond merely looking at the Chinese influence in Vietnam. “The high elite Chinese culture has been used to mask some regional differences within Vietnam,” said Thompson. The Vietnamese typically divide Vietnam into three distinct regions: north, center, and south. The northern region contains the Red River Delta, the southern the Mekong River Delta, and the center consists of the long skinny stretch of land in between. There are wide differences in climate, ethnicity, and culture between the regions. “Chinese culture has always been more evident in the north. It’s been less in the south, partly because the south belonged to a kingdom that was centered in what is now Cambodia until the 19th century,” said Thompson.

Unlike Western medicine’s emphasis on curing the acute, Vietnamese traditional medicine is based on prevention and harmony with nature. “There are all these sayings woven into daily life about things you should do to keep healthy,” said Thompson. Traditional medicine is a part of day-to-day life, especially in regards to cooking and eating. There is a large market for recipes by traditional physicians. “In Vietnam they say if you eat the fruits and veggies of the season it will help prevent the problems of the season. For example, oranges are naturally produced in the winter when you need Vitamin C for colds,” said Dr. Thompson.

Thompson hopes her book helps show the diversity of Southeast Asia. “Every country in Southeast Asia is a multiethnic entity. In some cases we aren’t even sure how many languages and minority groups there are. I want to make students interested in that,” she said.

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