by Sharon Cornet
Science and Culture LIB 332
Professor: Jennifer Cramer
February 15, 2010
Chinese Medicine: Dragon Bones
Dragon bones are a traditional medicine in China, and have been since ancient times, but more recent integration of modern medicine and growing awareness of science has had an impact in current society and cultural trends and beliefs. Whether by their historical application, or via modern scientific knowledge that dragon bones are actually dinosaur or other fossils they are and will continue to be an important cultural icon in Chinese society.
According to Xu Xing (2009) there has been a mutually beneficial trade-off between lay people and scientific researchers; scientific knowledge has increased public awareness, and researchers have been led by lay people to many of Chinas richest fossil sites, which is how paleoanthropologists were brought to the famous (Homo erectus) Peking Man fossils (para. 6). Xings insights into this broad social impact is based on Sigrid Schmalzers book on Chinese fossils, which shows how, despite Chinas scientific progress falling behind western countries, the exception is the publics interest due to increased paleontology and paleoanthropological discoveries (para. 3).
Xing says, concerning the lay-scientist impact, that Schmalzer emphasizes that non-specialists play a significant part in fossil discovery in China because many of them have long experience of collecting bones for medicinal use, and that it was lay knowledge of where to find abundant 'dragon bones', even though the practice of digging for bones to sell in apothecary shops is not as common today, commercial digging has increased in China owing to the expanding market for fossils as collector's items (para. 6). In turn, the state has been popularizing science and is pushing rational socialism for the eradication of superstition with the effect being a better developed technology and agriculture (para. 7).
Going one step further Xing states that Schmalzer touches home with some postmodern skepticism about the empirical validity of science [because] the boundary between science and non-science is blurry, contested and constructed (para. 9). It seems, too, that whether scientific interpretations of the fossils are socially constructed, or whether cultural interpretations of medicinal dragon bones are constructed, any contest might be a moot point due to cultural relativism. Erickson (2005) states that no culture [is] superior or inferior to another, and in this case, it could include the culture of science vs. the culture of Chinese society regarding ancient lore of medicinal dragon bones (p. 64).
Loxton (2008) says that dragons are such important, beneficial creatures in Chinese mythology and that it was natural for ancient people to imagine that their fossilized bones might have magical or helpful properties (Section: Dragon Bones, para. 2). Ancient Chinese legends have depicted the dragon as a symbol of creation and good luck, which has survived into todays celebrations of the Chinese New Year with dragon costumes (Section: Dragon Bones, para. 1). It is also a commonly known cultural tradition for couples to time the birth of their child in the year of the dragon in Chinese astrology; hence, the consistently higher birth rates at those times.
The mythical dragon in ancient Chinese lore appears to be just as important as any associated physical objects such as dragon bones, discussed in oral histories of ancestors who found them, used them, and promote the younger generation(s) to use them as well. Health of the body and mind are dependent upon taking in the strength and energy of the dragon. Loxton discusses how dragon bones are typically used in Chinese medicine (Section: Dragon Bones, para. 4):
"dragon bones" are crushed to a fine powder, boiled, and mixed with other ingredients to make healing concoctions. According to an ancient Chinese medical text (dating back around 2000 years) pulverized fossils have been used to treat conditions ranging from diarrhea to epilepsy to "manic running about." Some ancient "medical" conditions were mystical ailments. For example, dragon bone "mainly treats heart and abdominal demonic influx, spiritual miasma, and old ghosts."
Whether such mystical ailments were psychosomatic, or merely based on spiritual beliefs or other knowledge is not the issue. Cultural reality in the East is just as much truth to a people as science is to modern Western cultures, or even modern medicine in either part of the world. Additionally, regarding what both science and culture may be able to bring to the table, Loxton includes that the possibility that consuming ground fossils had a real medical benefit that ancient doctors couldn't know about: it may have been an important source of calcium for people suffering from a calcium deficiency (Section: Dragon Bones, para. 4). Whether by their historical application, or via modern scientific knowledge that dragon bones are actually dinosaur or other fossils they are and will continue to be an important cultural icon in Chinese society. Science may also bring enough knowledge especially in way of possible harmful minerals or elements (such as arsenic) to the public so consumption of ground dragon bones fossils diminishes in time, but the cultural and religious connections will undoubtedly remain as a relativistic truth to the Chinese people for a long time to come.
Erickson, M. (2005). Science, culture
and society: Understanding science in the 21st century.