On Appropriation

Daniel Schulman

/ 4 min read

Someone recently put the question into the social media sphere, “is it cultural appropriation for non-Chinese to practice Chinese Medicine?”

Here’s my response…

I recently had a Nigerian woman come to my clinic for Acupuncture treatment. I practice in Eastern Canada. As I describe below, you will see that I practice in a particular fusion of sources with perpetual synthesis. The Japanese Kiiko Matsumoto palpatory approach to acupuncture (which itself, is heavily infused with modern physiologic medicine arising from German influences on Japanese medicine) forms the core of my clinical approach. More recently, my practice has been infused with clinical applications of Nei Jing principles from the teachings of Nei Jing scholar and clinician, Ed Neal.

The Nei Jing is the 2000 year old (Han Dynasty) source text for all of acupuncture. But to be clear, what we have today are Song dynasty translations of the Nei Jing, themselves, more likely than not, ‘appropriations’ of what at the time was a text from a cultural context some roughly 1000 years prior to the Song dynasty. This begs the question – is the difference between the same geographical location with 1000 years between two times greater than the difference between two different locations at the same time in history – a line of inquiry which adds an interesting temporo-spatial provocation to the whole appropriation discussion. I’m no scholar of Chinese epochs, but 1000 years is a LONG time.

And currently, I am putting my attention towards organ visceral assessment and manipulation approaches via the Taoist martial arts inspired Tui Na teachings of Tom Bisio.

Beyond this fusion of clinical acupuncture, I bring to my practice my own personal lineage of Jewish intellectual capacity for critical thought and synthesis (which I feel certain, is an identifiable ‘thing’ in and of itself), of which I am at least third generation. My father was a biochemist whose research career was spawned within the very emergence of genetics as a pioneering branch of science. His scientific spirit was borne of that pivotal moment in the history of science. My French uncle practiced chemistry at the emergent edge of computational molecular simulation. His spirit of inquiry blended that new edge of science with the historically astute dignity, wisdom and revolutionary integrity of a bona fide covert French Resistance operant.

And going back two and three generations, I harken from a village (Wolozyn) located in present-day Belarus, but on a plot of land that has shifted between five distinct nation-states over the past century (White Russia, Lithuania, Russia, Poland and Belarus). Wolozyn was once the location of a world famous Yeshiva – a Rabbinical school dedicated to the study of Jewish religious and mystical texts.

My very blood is borne of edges, changes, shifting sands and provocative emergences.

So here I am, a New York born East European Jewish intellect offering a fusion of Japanese diagnostics, Germano-Japanese physiology, Song dynasty interpretations of Han dynasty medicine, and Taoist martial arts inspired Tui Na. I am located in Irish-Scottish Eastern Canada, Mi’kmaq territory before that, and on the day I write this, I am administering therapy to a Nigerian woman.

On a typical day in my acupuncture clinic, I have at least a dozen ‘appropriations’ coursing through me (that’s just what I can count over two or three generations. Going back further, it undoubtedly escalates beyond comprehension – I mean, just Google ‘Lynn Margulis’ and ‘mitochondria’ to learn of a whole other realm of appropriations coursing through our bodies – quite literally). Frankly, this is a beautiful mess! To the small-minded devotees of what I consider to be the wrong question, I ask, “which particular ‘appropriation’ might you be questioning in this context?

-the Nigerian woman seeking my care? (Is it more ‘appropriate’ she go back to find therapy from her ‘traditional Nigerian medicine’?)

-the Song dynasty interpretation of a text from 1000 year prior culture?

-the complex historical to and fro between Japan and Germany, resulting in modern German physiologic influences on modern Japanese medicine?

-the re-assertion of the importance of palpation by Japanese acupuncturists to a medical art the modern Chinese had significantly stripped of this skill set ( for a complex set of sociopolitically and culturally expedient reasons)?

-the Taoist martial arts inspired palpatory assessment and manipulation (which by the way, amounts to some ‘dialect’ of osteopathy but which cannot be called such due to small-minded turf-protecting impulses of present-day professional groups)?

-the attraction my patients have to my particular expression of a lineage of Jewish intellect and inquiry?

How do you propose we untangle this complex web of ‘appropriations’ to support the quest for the particular notion of ‘ethical’ purity of sources that seems to preoccupy you? Or, as I would suggest we question, is such concern with appropriation really not or at best only partially, in service to the big picture?

Look, I understand. There are many superficial and inconsiderate people around, grabbing cherries off of other people’s trees with little or no sensitivity to history, context, culture, past abuses and violences. Yes, there is a profoundly valid need for authentic cross-cultural respect, and in some cases, rectification and reconciliation for past egregiousnesses. We can honour and support all of that without swinging the pendulum too far the other way into the unreasonable realms of over constraint and distorted compensations that literally rob the future of possibilities. And please, let’s completely transcend the part of us that thinks we can address this issue with bureaucracy, codes, rules and regulations. Sure, declarations, principles and where reconciliation is important, processes. But let’s keep this a dance, not a prison.

This is a truly grand process in full swing across vast time and space. It is a very messy and breathtakingly complex fusion. This is world medicine (or music or dance for that matter). And in my clinic, it is being practiced with care, artfulness, reverence and full appreciation for all who came before me and all who await the full delivery of my own small part in this truly sweeping and beautiful process. I am ecstatic to be part of it. And so are most of my patients. Ask them.

Oh, and I almost forgot, during the acupuncture session, I was playing some Black American Jazz in my clinic. My Black African patient had never heard it before. Let’s all chill a bit. Fusion matters.