The Expressiveness of the Body

and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine
by Shigehisa Kuriyama

This is a strange book; the author has accomplished the difficult feat of mastering two radically different world views: that of classical Greece (and its Western descendants) and that of the Chinese classical period. The result is both fascinating and confusing.

Here’s a sample paragraph:

“A pathology of corruption versus a pathology of dissipation. Apprehensions about retention and excess versus the dread of loss and lack. In probing the motivations of bloodletting and acupuncture, we have uncovered some provocative contrasts. As always, the contrasts are relative: doctors in China certainly recognized problems of excess, and their Greek counterparts didn’t ignore sicknesses of depletion. Overall, however, intuitions of human frailty in the two traditions drew on opposing fears.”

This paragraph demonstrates deep insight into the differences between Western and Chinese ways of thinking, and is illustrative of the entire book. This is of immense importance nowadays: the Western way of thinking has dominated humanity’s intellectual processes for the last few centuries, and now that China is taking its proper place on the world stage, Chinese intellectual traditions will play a larger role in human progress.

Westerners are too quick to dismiss the Chinese intellectual tradition as irrational “woo woo” thinking. I myself find much Chinese writing to be both impenetrable and silly. I am particularly dismissive of the numerological component of Chinese thinking. Westerners think of the number 13 as unlucky, but Chinese have connotations for many numbers:

4. definitely unlucky
5. selfness
6. easy, smooth
8. good fortune
9. long duration
99. eternal
168. lucky
888. super-duper good fortune

When Westerners first began learning about Chinese medicine, they were astounded at its irrationality – but the thing that drove Westerners crazy is that Chinese medicine worked, after a fashion. Even today, most Chinese people first go to a traditionalist for relief of an illness, and turn to Western medicine only in acute cases or when the traditional methods have failed.

I must confess to skipping good chunks of the content; at times it seemed a little to “woo-woo” for my taste. I suspect that I have failed to appreciate what’s really going on in Chinese thinking, and that I should return to this book occasionally to absorb more of the Chinese style of thinking.

The author deserves our praise for having bridged two utterly alien intellectual traditions.