Box containing medical instruments, lid and base, from Chinese medicine chest, cardboard/paper/metal/glass/velvet, maker unknown, China, c 1925.
This cardboard box has thirteen scrapping instruments sewn into the velvet lining which have individual hand written Chinese labels on red gourd shaped stickers. The name in English has been typed out and placed underneath each instrument: Small hammer, Control tongue, Control tongue, Flat cutter, Small reaping hook, Arrow lance, Small cutter, Small cutter, Knife lance, Small ulcer knife, Knife lance, pinchers and Small control tongue.They are thought to be early 20th century Chinese manufactured instruments for minor surgical procedures, influenced by the contemporary Western instruments and nickel plated for disinfection or sterilization through boiling.
The tongue depressors and lances suggest the use of such a set may have included cleaning and scrapping teeth and treating infections inside the mouth. Gingivitis and periodontitis are some of the oldest diseases known and ancient Chinese medical texts included medicinal remedies for their treatment and instructions on the removal of calculus before treatment. Medicinal treatments were also prescribed to strengthen the kidney as periodontal disease is attributed to weakness of the kidney and heat in the stomach. Traditionally street dentists provided teeth extraction and therapies for oral diseases which can manifest as abscesses and ulcers. These types of healers largely inherited their profession with experience and knowledge passed on through the family lineage and they utilized small locally made metal instruments as working tools.
In traditional China the prohibitive influence of Confucius, with emphasis on the sacredness of the body and objection to dissection, hindered the development of internal surgery and anatomy. Certain traditional healers specialised as 'externalists' who performed various procedures on the external body such as bloodletting, the lancing of skin lumps and the debridement of ulcers and wounds with application of herbal pastes and powders. Street dentists can be considered in this category and, although they still provide treatement to the poor in modern China, they are gradually being replaced by trained Western trained dentists and specialty clinics.
These surgical instruments demonstrate the growing acceptance of Western medical procedures during a period of modernisation in China, pointing to the cultural and political influences acting on the development of medicine. Following the collapse of Imperial China in the first half of the 20th century the Nationalist government embraced Western science and enthusiastically promoted biomedicine while sidelining traditional Chinese medical practice in their plans for medical development. By the second half of the 20th century the Communist government aligned a Marxist-Maoist viewpoint with the philosophical base of traditional therapies and began to structure them within the modern health care system. Most surgery is performed by Western trained medical practitioners in integrated facilities.
The Wellcome Historical Medical Museum and Library, F.N.L. Poynter, ed, 'Chinese Medicine:An Exhibition Illustrating the Traditional System of Medicine of the Chinese People,' London, 1996, p6
Unschuld, Paul U, ¬?Medicine in China: A History of Ideas, California¬?, 1985, p235-249
This box of fifteen scraping instruments was contained in a Chinese medicine chest held at the Asian Studies Department of the University of Sydney since the late 1950's, and later donated to the Powerhouse Museum in 1994. Little is known about the manufacture of these types of instruments despite extensive research, indicating they were not in common use and may have been collected separately and stored in the medicine chest at a later date. They are part of a small collection of Chinese artefacts associated with traditional cultural practices thought to have been collected in China in the first half of the 20th century by an Australian protestant missionary J. Whitsed Dovey (1887-1956).
The instruments were part of a display and study collection used to educate missionaries about local medical practices. The design of these objects appears influenced by Western surgical practices and the nickel plating and packaging demonstrate modernisation in China at that time. Following the collapse of Imperial China the missionaries had found increasing interest in their medical activities from a Nationalist government embracing Western science and enthusiastically promoting biomedicine while sidelining traditional Chinese medical practice in their plans for medical development. Minor surgery was increasingly taken over by Western trained doctors in China after the integration of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Western biomedicine under the Communist government from the mid-20th century.
Unschuld, Paul U, 'Medicine in China: A History of Ideas, California', 1985, p235-249