Beyond Miracles: How Traditional Chinese Medicine Establishes Professional Legitimacy in Post-colonial Macau by Loretta I.T. Lou

[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in Imponderabilia: The International Student Anthropology Journal (2014). This piece is updated with new data and photos collected between 2015 and 2016.]

In Search of Reclusive Doctors (xunzhao yin shi yishu) was the first Chinese TV documentary about medical miracles “made” by doctors of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). When it was first broadcasted in 2001, it evoked great public interest in the Pearl River Delta region. In exalting the Chinese doctors’ miraculous power to save people on their deathbeds, the documentary paradoxically placed great emphasis on the scientific validity of TCM and folk medicine. In line with this, Mei Zhan’s ethnographic study of TCM doctors in Shanghai and San Francisco also found that the legitimacy of traditional Chinese medicine is built upon its ability to treat difficult cases (Zhan 2001:454). She argues that TCM doctors have used “miracle-making” to “craft a niche for traditional Chinese medicine within a biomedicine-centered health care system. The everyday practice and discourse of traditional Chinese medicine has come to be a site for the ‘production of the extraordinary’” (Ibid).

In an environment where TCM is in fierce competition with biomedicine, it is understandable that some TCM practitioners feel they have to establish their legitimacy through miracle-making. However, my research in Macau suggests a different story. A former colony of Portugal (1557-1999), Macau was returned to the People’s Republic of China in 1999 and is now a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the PRC. Although Macau had the first Western-style hospital in Asia, it was not until 1984 when the Macau-Portuguese government finally reformed its health care system and established a public health network composed of a government hospital and a dozens of community health centers.

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