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Healing Channels: Acupuncture and Pain Relief in 1970s China and the United States

Emily Baum, University of California, Irvine

April 20, 2022 · 4:30 pm6:00 pm · 202 Jones Hall

East Asian Studies Program

In 1971, acupuncture suddenly burst into the American consciousness. In that year, the New York Times journalist James Reston underwent an emergency appendectomy in Beijing and was treated with acupuncture to relieve his postoperative pain. From that point on, American fascination with the procedure continued to grow, particularly as the Chinese government widely promoted a newly-developed technique known as “acupuncture anesthesia.” In this talk, I trace the circulation of acupuncture knowledge from China to the United States, showing how the particular form and applications of acupuncture that came to be known among American patients and practitioners was crucially influenced by political developments back in China. Specifically, I pose the question: Why do we tend to associate acupuncture with pain relief in the United States when it is used for so many other conditions in China? I argue that the link between acupuncture and pain in American medicine is largely a result of how the Chinese government marketed the therapy to the American public starting in the 1970s. Acupuncture’s effectiveness as a form of pain relief, which could not be explained through existing scientific models, forced biomedical doctors to rethink their assumptions about the nature of pain and its physiological cause. Ultimately, through the example of acupuncture, I illustrate how China has not just been a recipient of medical knowledge throughout the 20th century, but a producer of medical knowledge as well — knowledge that circulated far beyond its own national borders to influence practices, epistemologies, and technical applications in the Western world.

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