When Daoism and TCM meet with int’l counterculture

By JINGYI JENNY ZHAO / 02-25-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Vivienne Lo and her father, Kenneth Lo Photo: COURTESY OF VIVIENNE LO

Vivienne Lo is a professor in the Department of History at University College London (UCL) and convenor of the UCL China Centre for Health and Humanity. She specialises in the social and cultural origins of acupuncture, therapeutic exercise, food, and medicine. Vivienne Lo was born with British-Chinese ancestry. Her father, the late Mr Kenneth Lo, began his career as a Chinese diplomat and then came to be known as the foremost expert in Britain on Chinese food, introducing Chinese food to Britain in the 1950s. In an interview with Dr Jingyi Jenny Zhao, ISF Research Fellow at the Needham Research Institute at Cambridge, Vivienne Lo shares her extraordinary encounters with Chinese literature, medicine, and philosophy.

Zhao: Professor Lo, could you start by telling us about your childhood and how you came to Chinese studies?
Lo: When I was growing up, people often said to me that I was only interested in China because I had problems with identity. I didn’t accept it as a teenager. Everyone has identity problems. I used to think I was a citizen of the world; that these things didn’t really matter. But I increasingly think that they do and I increasingly acknowledge that looking for my family and looking for the cultures that shaped my father, who was an enigma to me as a child, defined many of the choices that I made. My father was very untraditional in the way he brought us up, liberal in his education. We were very 1960s/70s teenagers, and so part of various kinds of international counterculture. 
Zhao: Where did you obtain your first degree?
Lo: My first education was in acupuncture in an acupuncture college. I started that when I was 17 and graduated and started working as an acupuncturist in London. I was quite successful in terms of the practice that I managed. However, I became profoundly dissatisfied with the kind of acupuncture I learnt in Britain and the practice.
 One of the ironies of my life was that all my interface with Chinese culture, apart from food, was with white people. I learnt taiji from an Australian opera singer. I learnt acupuncture from Jack Worsley, who was part of the five-element acupuncture movement. There were very few Chinese in that world, and I came to want more than was on offer there. I became more and more aware that none of the teachers could speak Chinese; none of them could read classical texts. Eventually, I turned up at Cambridge and signed up with Lucy Cavendish College.
The one person who really shaped my life was my uncle, Charles Lo. He was a teacher of classical Chinese at Columbia University in the United States. I must have been about four or five when he turned up in London for the first time. Then he’d come once a year and chanted the Mengzi [a Confucian classic] and the Zhuangzi [a Daoist classic]. I was entranced by this, and he would try to give me a lesson in classical Chinese. By the time I was a teenager, it became quite interesting to me.
I was a rebel teenager and made a lot of trouble. In that context, I was sent in desperation by my parents to New York. I spent ten days in New York with my uncle, and he completely changed my life. So even though it didn’t all have an impact immediately, he seeded things which then grew. Everything he seeded in those ten days came to fruition over the course of my life. I would listen to him chanting the Zhuangzi in the shower. All my family were rather untraditional in the Chinese sense, but he was very familiar with American counterculture because this was the 1970s. He introduced me to William Theodore de Bary and other famous sinologists at Columbia. He took me to the library and showed me Chinese books. He was my mentor for most of my years.
Zhao: Did you regard the Mengzi and the Zhuangzi as a ‘strange other’ or did you feel a kind of connection because they’re a part of your cultural roots?
Lo: I felt a connection. Something that my father breathed wasn’t articulated to me about Chinese culture, but it was somehow embedded in those texts and embedded in the way my uncle would try to tell them. It sounded beautiful. It gave me a sense of peace. It was a visceral, bodily thing. The books were sort of mysterious, but it was him chanting those texts that made me feel a connection, because I suppose it was the peace of his room in Upper Broadway and the concentration with which he did it and the way in which chanting opens up time. When you chant something or when you sing something, you could be any age. I could see that it linked him to his childhood, to another time when he was happy and in the midst of a bevy of cousins in their glorious home overlooking the Min River in Fuzhou. 
Definitely, Uncle Charles was the reason why I ended up at Cambridge. I entered a world in my late teenage years where I had been shaped a little bit by my uncle, but I was interested in the nature of Chinese culture and the ways in which my English friends, European friends and actually friends from all cultures in London, from all ethnicities, became interested in martial arts, taiji, Laozi [the reputed founder of Daoism], Zhuangzi, etc, in that kind of romanticization of what those texts meant and what those texts meant to hippie counterculture.
I had a translation of the Laozi [also known as the Daodejing, a Daoist classic] that was given to me by my father. I can’t remember who translated it, but I remember the photographs in it, which were images of leaves and trees, ice and water. Those images seemed to gel with the small-is-beautiful environmentalist culture that I loved as a teenager. And so it was all part of a counterculture, a rejection of standard professional roots, middle class roots, and the world. As a young person, I was a part of the counterculture for sure. That’s the context in which I’m interested in the Laozi.
Zhao: How would you sum up the impact of the Laozi on the subsequent development of the history of science in China and medicine?
Lo: I can’t speak to the larger history of science, but I can speak to the history of medicine. Certainly, ideas of water in the book, of water shaping concepts of qi, are some things that people can instinctively understand. In my own Ph.D., and then reverberating through all of my work, is Laozi’s idea of water flowing through the body, flowing down, instructing notions of qi. So in a sense, it speaks to me because I instinctively understand it from having studied taiji from the age of 12 or 13. This sort of embodiment of the concept of qi, the ways in which one feels qi in the body, are very much instructed by ideas already in the Laozi. So I see the impact of the Laozi still there in Chinese medical treatments and in acupuncture, but also in the ways in which people in China have been consistently able to articulate their experience of their bodies through concepts of qi, through concepts of yin and yang in the body, in ways that are impossible within the English language.
The world of medical humanities is grounded in patient narratives and patient experiences. It’s the place where Chinese history and the history of the body and the legacy of Laozi and the concept of water and experiential medicine or experience of the body have great power within Europe. Because of the post-Cartesian fragmentation of the body into various specialisms, one sees the disease but not the patient’s experiences of illness. So, I think Chinese medical ideas have filled this gap powerfully, and they are very much present within our contemporary world. Simply put, when people are suffering from some disease, they want to have their own experiences of that illness acknowledged, to own their suffering so they are not reduced to their disease. This is a large part of the context of Chinese and alternative medicine.
Zhao: Chinese medicine and philosophy were, as you mentioned, embraced by the counterculture movement and hippies, and they were seen as the ‘strange other.’ Do you think that picture has now changed?
Lo: It’s hard to say. In some ways Chinese medicine has been constrained by new laws whereas it previously flourished precisely because the laws were rather loose here, in England in particular. But I think that it really has found a place because of its being at the forefront of a challenge to the specialisms and to the ways in which biomedicine has fragmented the body. In fact many aspects of modern medicine, such as public health, don’t necessarily fragment the body, but advise about regimen in much the same way that ancient medicine used to—however if you compare the contemporary maxims such as ‘eat your five a day,’ with Chinese cultures of dietary knowledge—well there’s no comparison. These are probably the most important things that we have in medicine: caring about food keeps people healthy at population levels. But you tell people to eat your five a day and they don’t do it. You tell people to exercise and they don’t do it, whereas cultures of martial arts and of Buddhist vegetarianism or other kinds of cultures which are in a sense ‘antithetical’ to science are actually more effective at getting people moving and getting people to eat properly. Way back then, the hippies and the counterculture people were very invested in cultures of health and Asian body cultures such as yoga and environmentalism. At the time there was very little science in the background. So it just underlines how cultures of health change the world for the better.
Zhao: What do you think are the best ways of communicating ideas of Chinese medicine to a Western audience?
Lo: Chinese language has embedded within it this culture of understanding one’s own individual body and how there are ways within everyday life that you can deal with discomfort, levels of not quite well-being, which don’t exist within European languages somehow.
I don’t think that [Chinese and modern biomedicine] necessarily operate through completely different paradigms, because biomedicine has many different paradigms operating within it. You go into a pharmacy or surgery, and completely different forms of knowledge are informing how they practise, and equally within Chinese medicine. One of the things that is very unique about Chinese medicine is the poly pharmacy—you’re using many different ingredients together and that’s why it has been impossible to convince the world of modern pharmacy. It is very difficult to get evidence for a poly pharmacy, because nobody knows exactly how these drugs are interacting; it’s impossible to set up a clinical trial without reducing it to a situation where that model of Chinese pharmacy is lost. You cannot change a prescription for an individual at every single meeting and devise a clinical trial on that basis, because it relies too much on practitioner expertise and the art of medicine. On the other hand, in the history of Chinese medicine, you’ve got a long history of simples (where one ingredient was used for one illness) so that’s a vast sea of opportunity for bridging Chinese and modern pharma traditions..