When talking about the ‘medical missionary movement’, this article will focus on the Westernisation movement which had a significant impact on traditional Chinese medicine. There was a considerable amount of missionary activity during the late eighteenth century. I will explain that exposure to Western methods of using medicine ultimately threatened traditional Chinese medicine as the missionary movement was able to treat specific parts of the body in which the Chinese had no experience. Whether the Chinese tried to integrate knowledge of Western medicine into their traditional practice is debatable. However, here I wish to establish the idea that it did little to complement this practice as Western methods of medicine were at the central fore.  Also, I will be exploring the increase in Chinese converts to Christianity during this period and its negative effect on traditional Chinese medicine.

The introduction of Western methods of treating illnesses threatened traditional Chinese medicine. For example, the introduction of stethoscopes enabled medical experts to diagnose diseases of the heart and lungs. It was an efficient way of measuring potential danger to the human body as opposed to Chinese medical experts who never really looked into the anatomy of the human body. (G.H. Choa, Heal the sick pp.33). The Chinese were at first not very ‘keen’ towards Western medicine and doctors but this was along cultural lines. For example, Chinese medical experts saw the ‘indignity’ of the Western medical process where people had to take their clothes off (especially women) and disagreed with it on these grounds (Ibid.,  pp.34).

Nevertheless, although the Chinese were sceptical of Western medicine, this changed towards the end of the nineteenth century because medical missionaries were successfully treating their patients as opposed to Chinese medical experts who were failing to find solutions to some medical problems. This claim is valid especially in the field of ‘ophthalmology’ which the ‘native practitioners were entirely ignorant of’ (Ibid., pp.36). Ophthalmology deals with diseases of the eye and was a new branch of diagnosis for people living in China.

Doctors were starting to gain the confidence of their patients. One important example was Peter Parker (a doctor working in Canton). He dealt with 1,020 eye cases and treated around 7,571 patients (Ibid., pp.36). This threatened traditional Chinese medicine because ‘it was abundantly clear that the incidence of eye diseases was considerably high’ in many regions of China including Canton and Chusan. When you link this to the fact that Chinese medical experts had no experience in the field of ophthalmology, we can establish the notion that traditional Chinese medicine was threatened as new innovations that were being introduced to China undermined traditional methods. The lack of an organised medical service within China threatened traditional Chinese medicine as medical missionaries from the West provided hospitals, clinics and a medical service which the Chinese did not have access to before, especially in this capacity. Coupled with literal results, there was also an intellectual surge that threatened traditional Chinese medicine.

The medical missionary movement threatened traditional Chinese medicine through journals and pamphlets which were starting to insinuate new ideas, especially during the late nineteenthcentury. Articles and notes supported Western medicine in China including the treatment of leprosy, the origins of smallpox and the value of vaccination. Also, ‘advice was given on how to purify water’ and evidence shows how there was an increase in the issuing of prescriptions to patients who suffered from intestinal parasites (Bennett, ‘Missionary Journalist in China’,pp.193). One important journal published in China was the Wan-kuo kung- pao which consisted of Chinese periodicals published in Shanghai. Dr. John Dudgeon for example gave detailed descriptions and compared ‘Western and Chinese anatomies of the human skeleton’ and more importantly discussed the ‘contrasting principles of both of these’ (Ibid., pp.142-3). While this evidence alone is not strong enough to show how traditional Chinese medicine was being threatened, when we link it to how some elements of Chinese society reacted to these journals, we begin to see how significant it is.

Chinese intellectuals who were experts on medicine published works that had no links to traditional Chinese medicine including Yu Liang who published an article on the functions of the brain in 1883 (Ibid., pp.193). It is important in noting however that no more than seven per cent was devoted to ideas of medicine in the Wan-kuo kung-pao. Whether an overwhelming majority was exposed to these new ideas is debatable but nevertheless it did enable members of the government to support Western medicine which will be explored soon. This show how there was a break in traditional ways of looking at medicine with a new emphasis on Western methods, thus confirming that a threat did exist.

While written works threatened traditional Chinese medicine intellectually, the medical missionary movement started to exert its influence practically too through different medical societies and the subsequent increase of hospitals and schools which were Western-influenced. This ultimately enabled Chinese students to be exposed to Western medicine which threatened traditional practices. Evidence suggests that the Second Opium War led to many hospitals being established which were Western-influenced including the Renji Hospital in 1861 and the Hangzhou Guang Ji Hospital in 1880 (Luo Weihong, Christianity in China, pp.20). Many Western missionary hospitals and schools worked hand in hand to provide classes for students in various regions of the country. Many of them became ‘valuable workers’ both as ‘physicians and evangelists’ (Ibid.,pp.109) showing how conversions to Christianity meant that the Chinese were also looking for new ways to learn about medicine.

Some individuals had a massive influence when it came to teaching the Chinese about Western medicine including John G. Kerr who helped instruct 200 students and contributed to the ‘building up of the new Chinese medical literature’ (Ibid., pp.108). Furthermore, Kerr translated over twenty medical textbooks into Chinese showing how Western methods of dealing with medicine were being read by the Chinese literati who would take this new paradigm of thinking into account and apply it for future generations to learn. This implies that the paradigm of traditional Chinese medicine was being threatened because it was largely influenced by Taoist and Confucian principles and given that there was also an increase of Chinese converts to Christianity, this ensured that the medical missionary movement did not compliment traditional Chinese medicine. China’s own government can also be considered as having been a direct threat to traditional Chinese medicine because of its compliance with the medical missionary movement.

The government of China during the late eighteenth century, (Qing) started to embrace the missionary movement which consequently threatened traditional medicine as Chinese students started to go abroad to learn ‘new’ concepts which they would bring back to China and spread. Evidence suggests that the government was cooperating with missionaries. In 1881, the first medical school was established in the country on a ‘modern basis’ and Kenneth Mackenzie was given ‘full freedom’ by the government to carry out medical missionary work amongst the students (Balme, China and Modern Medicine, pp.110). This would explain the trend in the number of Chinese students who went abroad to study. For example, two Chinese females studied medicine in America from 1892 to 1896 and  their return to China was greeted with huge ovations in their hometowns. This is significant as new methods of medicine were being explored by the Chinese themselves, consequently undermining traditional teachings, and the fact that they were welcomed back shows how there was a change in attitudes thus implying that traditional medicine was being undermined.

The National Medical Association of China is important in supporting the notion that traditional Chinese medicine was being undermined. This was organised by experienced Chinese medical students who encouraged the government to establish new curriculums based on ‘modern standards of medical education’. A suggested syllabus was proposed to the government and subsequently, many Chinese provincial governments took a ‘keen interest’ in these developments thus providing provincial medical colleges such as ‘Soochow’ and more importantly cooperated with the development of ‘Missionary Medical colleges’ (Ibid., pp.118). This show how there was a change in attitudes towards traditional Chinese medicine following a new emphasis on Christianity.

Given the fact that traditional Chinese medicine is more in line with principles of Taoism and Confucianism, one could argue that the increase in converts to Christianity meant that their newfound principles were not compatible with traditional notions of Chinese medicine which depended on entry points between the physical worlds of the spirit. Ultimately, modern scientific tradition does not allow this sort of interaction e.g., the missionary movement would have emphasised the importance of laboratory tests as opposed to metaphysical phenomena.

Many individuals who were pioneers of the medical missionary movement were able to convince ‘the Chinese of the value of Western medicine’ which would ultimately ‘remove people’s prejudice against Christianity’ (Weihong, Christianity in China, pp.19). It is important in talking about Peter Parker who built the first missionary hospital. Evidence suggests that the Chinese who were non-Christian were made ‘quite aware that they owed their recoveries to Christianity’ (Morton,’Reflections on Christianity in China’). This implies that those exposed to Western medicine were arguably able to experience a more efficient system of medication only if they subscribed to Christian beliefs. We can ultimately see a direct correlation between the two. This in turn threatened traditional Chinese medicine.

Many schools were opened and by the 1870s, statistics show how there were about ‘350 schools run by missionaries with approximately 6,000 students’. What is important about this evidence is the fact that the curriculum of these schools including St. John’s School and Zhong Xi School in Shanghai had ‘Western teaching principles and curricula’ (Weihong, Christianity in China, pp.21). This also meant that Christian ideas were being insinuated and slowly started to penetrate Chinese society. Yet again then, we are able to establish the fact that traditional Chinese medicine was threatened because the bulk of its success was based on principles of Taoism and/or Confucianism and even this was being undermined with the large conversions of the Chinese towards Christianity.

Briefly looking at Chinese individuals helps us realise how traditional Chinese medicine became less important. For example, Huang Kuan was the first Chinese student to study at a Western university. More importantly, in his return, he began to carry out new types of surgery in China and contributed to the diagnosis of the cholera epidemic in 1873. This ultimately was through a Western education of medicine which he received as opposed to a traditional Chinese one. Now the influential elements of society were adapting Western methods in medicine.

To conclude, it is apparent that the medical missionary movement in China was primarily a threat to traditional Chinese medicine. The missionary movement was able to capitalise and treat areas of the body which were not explored by traditional Chinese medical experts especially in the field of ophthalmology. Coupled with the fact that eye diseases were a significant problem during the late eighteenth century, their treatment led to many Chinese appreciating missionary works.

While this explains how individuals started to appreciate Western medicine, it is equally important to mention how some elements of the Chinese government worked hand in hand with the medical missionary movement which led to the establishment of Western-style private universities. This implies that the Chinese government was ready to change the way it looked at medicine by adopting new ways of treatment. It explains the rise of Chinese medical men and women (who were encouraged by the government) who received their training on Western and ‘modern’ lines by studying abroad. This ultimately threatened Chinese medicine as they returned with findings that would undermine the traditional way of dealing with illnesses.

The increase in Chinese converts to Christianity intensified the threat to traditional Chinese medicine which was based on Confucian and Taoist principles, firmly rooted in Chinese philosophy and many concepts relating to cosmology. All this was obscured when Western notions of medicine took over which were more ‘scientific’, hence explaining the rise in publications of journals which advocated Western-style medicine.



1)      Adrian A. Bennett, Missionary Journalism in China – Young J. Allen and his Magazines, 1860-1883 – The University of Georgia Press (1983)

2)      G.H. Choa, “Heal the sick” was Their motto: The Protestant Medical Missionaries in China – Hong Kong – The Chinese University Press, (1990)

3)      Harold Balme – China and Modern Medicine – A Study in Medical Missionary Development – Dean of the School of Medicine, (General Books LLC – 13 Jan 2010)

4)      http://www.ed.ac.uk/about/edinburgh-global/profiles/alumni/huang-kuan

5)      Luo Weihong, Christianity in China, Chinese Intercontinental Press (Jan 2004)

6)      Morton H. Reflections on Christianity in China American Ethnologist, Vol. 14, No. 1, Frontiers of Christian Evangelism (Feb., 1987), pp. 94-106


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