While reshaping our understanding of the history and development of traditional Vietnamese medicine in the 19th and 20th centuries, Michele Thompson's new book reaches across disciplines to open important perspectives in Vietnamese colonial and social history as well as our understanding of the Vietnamese language and writing systems.
Traditional Vietnamese medicine is generally understood as an import from the Chinese tradition: Thompson's detailed historical and linguistic research restores agency and voice to practitioners of Vietnamese medicine, showing how the adoption of Chinese and then Western ideas of medicine in the 19th and 20th centuries relied on indigenous Vietnamese concepts of health and the human body. She mines medical manuscripts in Chinese and in Nom (vernacular Vietnamese) to capture various aspects of the historical interaction between Chinese and Vietnamese thought. She presents a detailed analysis of the Vietnamese response to a Chinese medical technique for preventing smallpox, and to the medical concepts associated with it, looking at Vietnamese healers from a variety of social classes.
Thompson's account brings together colorful historical vignettes, contemporary observations and interviews, and textual analysis. It stands out as a demonstration of the power of the history of medicine to illuminate adjacent fields of enquiry. It will be of interest to historians of medicine globally and in East Asia, as well as to students of Vietnam and its complex process of modernization.