Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Tamara Venit Shelton's "Herbs and Roots"

Tamara Venit Shelton is associate professor of history at Claremont McKenna College and author of A Squatter’s Republic: Land and the Politics of Monopoly in California, 1850–1900.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Herbs and Roots, readers will find a discussion of how Chinese herbalists practicing in the late nineteenth-century United States borrowed advertising strategies from makers of proprietary (or patent) medicines. These strategies included the invocation of the “magical” and “miraculous.” Chinese herbalists promised to do what regular physicians could not: to cure the seemingly incurable with their remedies. What distinguished the advertising strategies of the Chinese from other makers of patent medicines was the former’s pairing of the “miracle cure” with the exoticism of the “Orient.” Page 99 begins to explain how Chinese herbalists self-Orientalized in their appeals to non-Chinese patients. They capitalized on their American patients’ racialized expectations of Asian alterity to articulate the superiority of their therapies over those of scientific medicine and to compete in the medical marketplace.

The Page 99 Test works very well for my book. Although Herbs and Roots chronicles a much longer history of traditional Chinese medicine in the United States and the lived experiences of its practitioners, the book’s principal concern is with the moment described on page 99: what historians call the “long Progressive Era,” the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In this era, Chinese herbalists became increasingly active in the American medical marketplace. As Chinese Exclusion shrank their co-ethnic clientele, Chinese herbalists reached out to new, non-Chinese patients, often via advertising in English- and Spanish-language media as described on page 99. This advertising tended to rely on easily recognizable, Orientalist stereotypes of the Chinese as mystical and otherworldly. The references to the “miraculous” were just the tip of the iceberg. The middle section of the book goes on to explore the varied and sometimes contradictory ways that Chinese herbalists repurposed the racist tropes used against them. They profited from their own social and professional marginalization and the perpetuation of anti-Chinese racism. The book concludes with an exploration of the persistence of these marketing strategies into our time and their implications for the place of traditional Chinese therapies in the American health care system.
Learn more about Herbs and Roots at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue