Dusk Without Sunset: Actively Aging in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Xiaohui Yang

PhD Thesis 2006

Drawing on theoretical perspectives in critical medical anthropology, this dissertation focuses on the intersection between Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), aging and identity in urban China. It gives special attention to elderly people’s embodied agency in assimilating, challenging, and resisting political and social discourses about getting old. In most general terms my argument is that embodied agency is expressed by participating in daily health regimens referred to as yangsheng. With its origins in ancient Chinese medical texts and health practices, but also having incorporated many modern elements, yangsheng may be understood as a system of beliefs and practices designed for self-health cultivation.

In light of major anthropological theories that provide an understanding of biopower, somatization and agency my argument is two fold. First, the state discourse on healthy aging, prompted by social, economic and demographic changes, has had a tremendous effect on how the elderly think and act with reference to their physical and mental health. Second, the elderly have adopted a life style known as yangsheng, and this enables them to engage actively with the state discourse and institutionalized, commercialized medicine. As a broad way of thinking and living that exists beyond the domain of medicine per se, yangsheng enables the elderly to maintain a positive attitude towards aging. More importantly, in a context of significant demographic and policy changes toward health care and social support for the aged, it provides modes of thinking and various practical methods for the elderly to take an active role in building up, maintaining and restoring their health. Therefore, TCM based yangsheng not only grants the elderly an alternative to, or escape from, the expense and alienation of institutionalized medicine; it also allows for more control over the social, economic and cultural implications of aging in today’s China.

Drawing upon interviews with elderly people who have actively sought alternatives to institutionalized health care, this research provides an important anthropological corrective to the literature that tends to presume the universality of what are in fact arbitrary categorizations such as being either “healthy” or “sick” and either “old” or “young.” I argue that both good health and aging are things that can be proactively and creatively negotiated.