Institution and the Wild: Salvaging and Sorting Minority Medicines in China
With Judith Farquhar (University of Chicago)
“Institutions” evoke officialdom. The state. An enframing and thus determining Structure, the constraining Other to our Freedoms. Here my co-author Lili Lai and I want to propose a different significance from the point of view of our field study of new minority medical systems in southern China. In this collaborative research on the state- led project of building ethnic groups and traditional medicines, we explore the relations that can exist between public and formal knowledge/governance practices and “wild” lore, authority, and forces. In other words, we want to deploy both institution and the wild anew. We see institution and wildness as analytic tools that help us understand particular configurations of power and knowledge as they relate to bodies and environments in “ethnic” southern China. The developments we are tracking go under the name of salvaging and sorting the traditional medicines of the nation’s 55 minority nationalities.
We first discuss the potential of “institution” and “the wild” for clarifying the processes in which traditional knowledge and “minority nationality” medical practices are emerging now. Then we introduce a healer, Dr. Zhao, who not only wears many hats but embodies and institutionalizes Zhuang nationality medicine as a mixture of forms, which he capably gathers from strands of tradition, market opportunities, and legal mediation. We close with the situation of a Qiang nationality healer, Dr. Li, whose mixture of wild and official activities is quite different from Dr. Zhao’s, and whose view of the promises of either institution or wild knowledge is perhaps more bleak and tragic. There are lessons in the work of these expert healers that invite critical self-reflection by anthropologists and health workers.