Opening with a contrast between the pulse-reading practices of traditional Chinese medicine doctors in clinics and the objective data on pulses provided by the electronic pulsometer, this discussion analyzes the qualitative judgments involved in medical diagnosis and therapy. Working clinicians who discern and classify pathological processes employ a semiotics of qualities to establish the value, or practical and ethical significance, of bodily signs. The embodied perceptiveness of pulse reading in Chinese medicine is thus understood as an engagement with qualities. As such, it narrows the field of qualities available to the touch in conventional and historically authorized ways, while still relying on a qualitative excess. In spite of a widespread interest in providing objectively proven, evidence-based medicine both in China and in North America, this article suggests that it is in the nature of clinical work everywhere ultimately to prefer a qualitative semiotics that exceeds standardized classification and quantification.
Reading Hands: Pulse Qualities and the Specificity of the Clinical
Judith Farquhar is Max Palevsky Professor in the Department of Anthropology of the University of Chicago. Her research on contemporary China spans three decades, focusing on theories and practices of modern traditional Chinese medicine, everyday life and embodiment, popular culture and media, post-Mao and postsocialist micropolitics, and, most recently, national movements to systematize the traditional medicine practices of China's ethnic minorities. She is the author of KnowingPractice: The Clinical Encounter of Chinese Medicine (1994), Appetites:Food and Sex in Post-socialist China (2004), and (with Qicheng Zhang) Ten Thousand Things: Nurturing Life in Contemporary Beijing (2012).