Conservation and Society

: 2022  |  Volume : 20  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 193--194

Faunal Medicalisation in Mao's China

Emily T Yeh 
 University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado, USA

Correspondence Address:
Emily T Yeh
University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado

How to cite this article:
Yeh ET. Faunal Medicalisation in Mao's China.Conservat Soc 2022;20:193-194

How to cite this URL:
Yeh ET. Faunal Medicalisation in Mao's China. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2022 [cited 2023 Jun 7 ];20:193-194
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Much of the world's illicit wildlife trade, a major driver of global biodiversity loss and the crisis of extinction, is understood to be propelled by Chinese demand for traditional medicines and delicacies—many also believed to have medicinal qualities. According to conventional wisdom, the vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered status of species such as tiger, pangolin, rhinoceros, musk deer, seahorse, and Asiatic black bear, is the tragic result of timeless Chinese cultural beliefs, or at least a medicinal system several thousand years old. Concerns about Chinese wildlife consumption have become even more acute with the COVID-19 pandemic, given the possibility that the pangolin was an intermediate host.

Liz P.Y. Chee's Mao's Bestiary: Medicinal Animals and Modern China brilliantly explodes the received wisdom about the immutable use of animal tissues in Chinese medicine. Through a detailed and creative study of the use of animals in state pharmacology from the founding of the People's Republic of China through the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the early Reform period, Chee demonstrates that the current enthusiasm for animal parts was not the inexorable outcome of a pure Chinese cultural tradition. Instead, faunal medicalisation, Chee's term for “the process of fashioning and refashioning animal-based drugs for service to Chinese state medicine and…the larger economy” (5) was an active process shaped by transnational influences, from the Soviet Union, North Korea and Japan, as well as shifting ideologies and political economic constraints. Chee's ultimately hopeful argument is that because it was not inevitable that animals would become part of modern Chinese state pharmacology, it is also not inevitable that they stay there.

Drawing on a wide range of sources including pharmaceutical journals published from the 1950s through the Cultural Revolution, as well as other kinds of texts produced by officials, physicians, and animal farmers, Chee traces faunal medicalisation from Mao to Deng as an emergent assemblage. While the allure of animal-based medicines for consumers today is largely based on the claims of tradition and authenticity, Chee reveals that science-based innovation and experimentation were key to the production of new drugs during the early Communist period; this complicates long-standing views of the Maoist period as basically anti-science. Indeed, it was the production and thus availability of new animal-tissue based drugs during this period, as well as new claims to their efficacy, that created consumption desires, rather than the other way around.

To set the broader context, Chapter One discusses the rise of the pharmaceutical sector in the early to mid-twentieth century. During the late Republican period, Chinese physicians trained in Japan and in Western biomedicine began to make distinctions between Chinese medicine (the knowledge and practices of doctors) and Chinese drugs. After 1949, the new state faced shortages of medicinals, prompting efforts to produce new drugs by “scientising” Chinese medicine, and bringing the Western and Chinese medical traditions together. However, state pharmacology was not particularly concerned with animal-derived substances, which were barely mentioned in texts from the 1950s.

Chapter Two turns to the influence of the Soviet Union on the development of Chinese pharmaceuticals. Russia and China shared certain native plants and animals used as medicines, as well as a need to produce drugs that were no longer available from the West. Moreover, Chee argues, Soviet interest in organotherapy—the injection of various “secretions” from animal tissues such as monkey glands to treat human health problems—helped to legitimise faunal medicalisation in China. In both Russia and China, there were disputes between those who advocated for the biomedical approach of isolating active ingredients of traditional medicinal materials, and those who critiqued this approach as too limiting. According to the latter, medicinal efficacy derives from combinations of materials too complicated to be reducible to a single active ingredient.

The next three chapters chronicle faunal medicalisation in three phases, each with its own emphasis and emblematic case study. Chapter Three examines the acceleration of production, including through deer farming, during the Great Leap Forward. Chapter Four turns from production to innovation, showing how Cultural Revolution ideology led to chicken blood therapy and various other claims of miracle cures purportedly inspired by folk practices. Finally, Chapter Five analyses the shift to entrepreneurship under Deng Xiaoping's reforms, as found in the farming of bears for bile.

During the Great Leap Forward, the need for foreign exchange and the goal of achieving self-sufficiency in domestic drug production encouraged the innovation and production of “'new' medicinals that were neither clearly 'Chinese' nor 'Western' and did not replace existing drugs so much as attempt to create new niche markets” (77). This led to a turn toward species, including animal species, that had not previously been commercially exploited, as well as to the farming of animals such as deer for antlers and musk, partly influenced by the experience of Soviet and North Korean deer farms. Although such farming was sometimes justified as a form of conservation, Chee argues that it had the opposite effect, both because it stimulated further market demand for wild versions of the same species, and because the farms were generally unable to maintain a self-breeding population and thus had to rely on hunting to replenish their stock. Moreover, the farming of medicinal animals created pressure to invent new medicinal uses for other parts of the animals.

Production—not appeals to “tradition” or even efficacy—was the focus of medicinals in the Great Leap Forward. During the Cultural Revolution, innovation by the masses and an appeal to the wisdom of folk tradition predominated. This led to the invention of treatments such as “chicken blood therapy”—the direct injection of the blood of live chickens into humans—which were promoted as capable of treating diseases that biomedicine could not cure. The production of high-end animal medicines for the export market also grew. All in all, the medical charisma of animal tissues intensified significantly. Whereas a sixteenth century medical text listed 400 animal-derived medicinal compounds, by 1979 the number of listed animal species more than doubled to 832, and in 2013 the compilation included 2,341 (8).

After Deng Xiaoping initiated Reform and Opening Up, the use of animal species for medicine accelerated again, this time under the discourses of entrepreneurship and “economic animals.” The term “traditional Chinese medicine” came into widespread use as a marketing tool to convey a sense of authenticity to what were actually new products and processes. Among these was industrially farmed bear bile, the result of cross-border exchange between China and North Korea, as well as lab work conducted in Japan. Health supplements also emerged as a category at this time to further expand the market. Yet despite the industrial and transnational character of these innovative products, they were presented as and became understood by consumers as “traditional.”

One puzzle that remains unexplored is the growing demand for medicinal animals by overseas Chinese, starting during the Great Leap Forward. Chee notes explicitly that the pan-Asian demand for the new and newly abundant products is outside the scope of her research, which focuses squarely on the innovators and producers. However, she argues forcefully that these innovations helped accustom the Chinese public to the availability of such medicinal products, and that commercial availability often preceded research on medical efficacy. I was left wondering how the demand was created in the overseas market; this is important given that the need to generate foreign exchange through selling to this market was, as Chee argues, part of what stimulated the focus on production within China in the first place. Hopefully future research will soon fill this lacuna.

To sum up, Mao's Bestiary will be of significant interest to graduate students and established scholars in Chinese history, Science and Technology studies, cultural and medical anthropology, and Chinese medicine. Written in an accessible and very clear style, it can also be used in undergraduate courses in these areas. Although its direct content on the contemporary global biodiversity crisis is limited, the book's basic argument is highly significant for interdisciplinary scholars with an interest in global conservation. Finally, it will also be of use to policymakers and activists concerned about effectively addressing the global wildlife trade.