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Table of Contents
Year : 2021  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 181-187

Description Générale de la Chine and the spread of traditional Chinese medicine to the West in the 18th century

International Institute of Chinese Studies, Beijing Foreign Studies University; Beijing Cultural Exchange Research Center, Beijing Foreign Studies University, Beijing 100089, China

Date of Submission02-Jul-2021
Date of Acceptance14-Aug-2021
Date of Web Publication30-Sep-2021

Correspondence Address:
Associate Prof. Zhen Li
International Institute of Chinese Studies, Beijing Foreign Studies University, Beijing 100089, China; Beijing Cultural Exchange Research Center, Beijing Foreign Studies University, Beijing 100089
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_35_21

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Description Générale de la Chine is an important sinology masterpiece published in France in the late 18th century. Its author Jean-Baptiste Grosier summarized and rearranged a large number of first-hand materials to systematically introduce China's national traditions and culture. A great part of this book introduced ancient Chinese medicine, which facilitated the unbiased understanding of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in Europe and fostered a knowledge dialogue between the Chinese and Western medicine systems. Such content also provided a historical reference for how to promote the further going out of TCM to the world.

Keywords: Description Générale de la Chine, French sinology, Jean-Baptiste Grosier, spread of traditional Chinese medicine to the west

How to cite this article:
Li Z. Description Générale de la Chine and the spread of traditional Chinese medicine to the West in the 18th century. Chin Med Cult 2021;4:181-7

How to cite this URL:
Li Z. Description Générale de la Chine and the spread of traditional Chinese medicine to the West in the 18th century. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2021 [cited 2021 Dec 7];4:181-7. Available from: https://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2021/4/3/181/327162

  Introduction Top

The 17th and 18th centuries were a key stage that witnessed the reciprocal introduction of Chinese and European cultures to each other, particularly after the French Jesuits entered China. That was also the stage when Sinology research in Europe began to boom. Many Chinese-themed works were concerned with things of all walks of life, describing and interpreting China in their own way. China, known as the other, boosted Europe's own ideological and cultural awakening during the Age of Enlightenment.

According to the records in Bibliotheca Sinica (《西人论中国书目》) by French Sinologist Henri Cordier (考狄 1849–1925), Description Générale de la Chine (《中国通典》),[1] an important Sinologist book was published in France, 1785. This book was originally published as a supplementary 13th volume to l'Histoire générale de la Chine (《中国通史》) edited by a French Jesuit named Joseph-Francois-Marie-Anne de Moyriac de Mailla (1669–1748). The author of the book in question was Jean-Baptiste Gabriel Alexandre Grosier (1743–1823), a famous scholar of the Society of Jesus who was one of the editors and publishers of l'Histoire générale de la Chine and he was also responsible for publishing Mémoires concernant l'histoire, les sciences, les arts, les moeurs, les usages, etc., des Chinois, par les missionnaires de Pekin which was regarded as one of the three greatest Sinologist books in Europe of the 18th century.

Description Générale de la Chine [Figure 1] and [Figure 2] inherits an encyclopedic narrative style that was used in Description Géographique, Historique, Chronologique, Politique et Physique de l'empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie Chinoise (《中华帝国全志》) characterized by a grand layout, rich content, and the classified and detailed use of China's geography, nature, history, society, economy, politics, military, belief, language, literature, science, and many other aspects. Description Générale de la Chine is divided into two parts in a total of eight volumes. Part I is formed of four volumes, with volume one introducing the 15 provinces of China and volume two describing China's Tatar region while volume three is about China's vassal states and volume four talking about China's natural history. Part II also consists of four volumes, with volume one introducing the Chinese government, volume two discussing the religious beliefs of the Chinese people, while volume three dealing with morals and customs, and volume four is connecting with literature, science, and art. After its first publication in 1785, this book was republished in 1787 and 1818–1820. It was also translated into English, German, and Italian. Description Générale de la Chine received enthusiastic responses in various European countries and became the best-selling Sinology work in Europe after the Description Géographique, Historique, Chronologique, Politique et Physique de l'empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie Chinoise (《中华帝国全志》), representing the highest level of Sinology study in France at that time.
Figure 1: Title page of the Description Générale de la Chine published in 1785

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Figure 2: Title page of the Description Générale de la Chine published in 1787

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  Medicinal Materials Across Areas in the Description Générale de la Chine Top

In this book, its author Jean-Baptiste Grosier paid particular attention to Chinese medicine and leveraged on the first-hand information in the reports and letters sent home by French missionaries from China. He then reorganized and arranged these reports and letters according to his own editing plan and frameworks. This thesis selects the key parts of the book for analysis.

It can be seen from the book that China's medicinal materials were primarily found in the central plains, the southwest and the northeast regions, including Henan (河南), Shandong (山东), Shaanxi (陕西), Sichuan (四川), Yunnan (云南), and Jilin (吉林). Such records are relatively scattered, with brief introductions described in a few sentences. For example, the author mentions that a white-spotted snake originating in Nanyang (南阳), Henan Province, which was used for medicinal wine to treat paralysis. Niu Huang (牛黄 Calculus Bovis) produced in Qingzhou (青州), Shandong Province, was used to treat catarrhal inflammation and stubborn lumps, and Shaanxi Province was rich in Da Huang (大黄 rhubarb). The prosperous province of Sichuan is also famous for Da Huang (大黄 Radix et Rhizoma Rhei) and Fu Ling (茯苓 Poria). Yunnan (云南) is an important source of herbal medicine in China. Jilin (吉林) in northeast China is famous for producing Ren Shen (人参Radix Ginseng).

When introducing trees and plants, this book focuses on some plants' medicinal and beneficial aspects, which enriched the Europeans' knowledge of Chinese flora. The book mentions that locust tree seeds can be used as medicine by soaking the seeds in cow's bile during winter before drying them in the shade for 100 days. Taking one seed a day after a meal can help improve eyesight, darken the hair, and treat hemorrhoids.

Grosier, author of the book, also uses all of the contents in an investigation report related to Chinese tea written by Father Louis le Comte (1655–1728) in the Nouveaux mémoires sur l'état present de la Chine (1687–1692) (《中国近事报道》) and Grosier consulted almost all of the contents in it.[2] Louis le Comte's detailed that lengthened description of tea in the original book was not indiscriminately copied by Grosier. Instead, he simplified and abstracted key points concerning the medicinal value of the four major types of tea in China. For example, Songluo tea (green tea) can treat multiple diseases, while Wuyi tea (武夷茶) can clean blood and rejuvenate strength.

Piper betle(蒌叶), a climbing vine plant of the family Piperaceae in Piper genus, can have its aromatic oil extracted as konjac soy sauce. Its stems and leaves can be used as medicine for warming the middle energizer to harmonize the stomach; thus, directing qi downward to dissipate binds. As introduced by Grosier, the Chinese people use piper betle leaves as a panacea for lung and stomach diseases. Since many provinces in South China suffer from hot and humid environments, the southerners like to wrap lime and betel nut with such leaves as the chewing materials and the mixture of such nut and leaves is able to strengthen the gums, moisturize the throat, purge fire, and prevent asthma.

Another medicinal plant highlighted in the book is Ai Cao (艾草 Folium Artemisiae Argyi). It is a plant that grows in different climate and regions. China is the world's largest producer of Ai Cao (艾草 Folium Artemisiae Argyi), with a long history of its use in moxibustion. Grosier mentions that there is a widespread custom in ancient China: Ai Cao (艾草 Folium Artemisiae Argyi) was first regarded as an anti-evil item, which, on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month, would be hung everywhere to ward off yin pathogens. Later, its medicinal value was gradually discovered. He states that Ai Cao (艾草 Folium Artemisiae Argyi) is also called l'herbe de Médicans and is roughly divided into four types: common, thorn, wild, and alpine Ai Cao (艾草 Folium Artemisiae Argyi) (which only grows on the high mountains in the south). The book written by Grosier specifically points out that Jizhou (蓟州) and Mingzhou (明州) are the two places that produce the best of medical Ai Cao

(艾草 Folium Artemisiae Argyi), a point similarly recorded in medical books written in Chinese. The book Ben Cao Pin Hui Jing Yao (《本草品汇精要》 Collected Essentials of Species of Materia Medica) was published in the Ming Dynasty and it stated that “according to the Ben Cao Tu Jing (《本草图经》 Illustration Classics for Materia Medica), Ai Cao (艾草 Folium Artemisiae Argyi) is found in the fields, but now, it grows everywhere, including Daodi (道地 now Tangyin County, Anyang, Henan Province), Jizhou (蓟州 now Jichun County, Hubei Province), and Mingzhou (明州 now Ningbo and around Dan County, Zhejiang Province)”. Regarding the medicinal use of Ai Cao (艾草 Folium Artemisiae Argyi), Grosier cited Chinese medical books, saying that Ai Cao (艾草 Folium Artemisiae Argyi) cures gynecological and obstetric diseases, similar to its European usage. In addition, the juice of the mugwort leaves can treat hemoptysis. Its seeds, when burned to ashes, can cure nosebleeds; it is also effective for dysentery, pleurisy, and spleen-stomach weakness. Its stems and shoots can be used as a substitute for tea for the elderly. “Moxa floss” is a naturally processed product that is made from dried mugwort leaves, which is gray, soft as velvet, fragrant in smell and is suitable for use in moxibustion. According to Grosier's understanding, moxibustion in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) can treat strokes and sleeping problems, while belts made of moxa floss can treat sciatica. Finally, Grosier introduces to the Europeans the production technique and usage of moxa floss. For example, moxa floss must be made from mugwort leaves picked in the autumn. Moxa floss should be short, soft and thin, which also should be made of sulfur instead of saltpeter. He specifically mentions that acupuncture and moxibustion are commonly combined in northern China, which can cure patients of rheumatism in the legs. This is also usually referred to as “warm acupuncture”, by wrapping a mass of moxa floss around the needle handle and putting a small piece of moxa stick around it. Needling synchronizes with moxa floss ignition, thereby simultaneously performing acupuncture and moxibustion.

  Medicinal Plants and Chinese Medicinal Materials in Description Générale de la Chine Top

Moreover, Grosier gave a unique introduction of several well-known herbal medicines, including Da Huang (大黄 Radix et Rhizoma Rhei), Dong Chong Xia Cao (冬虫夏草 Chinese caterpillar fungus), San Qi (三七 Radix Notoginseng), Jue Ming Zi (决明子 Semen Cassiae), Ren Shen (人参 Radix Ginseng), Fu Ling (茯苓 Poria), and Di Huang (地黄 Radix Rehmanniae Recens).

Da Huang (大黄Radix et Rhizoma Rhei) is a type of medicinal material that Europeans are familiar with, and those of Sichuan Province have the best quality. The botanical characteristics of rhubarb were described in this book. Earlier, Father Dominique Parrenin (1665–1741) obtained knowledge about the plant morphology of rhubarb from the narratives of the Chinese pharmacists who purchased rhubarb from its place of origin. Parrenin recorded and described the plant morphology of authentic Chinese rhubarb, particularly Sichuan rhubarb and his description was later on relayed in Grosier's Description Générale de la Chine. He also introduced how to store rhubarb as a medicine after exposing it to the sun for drying. Since Da Huang (大黄 Radix et Rhizoma Rhei) was a medicinal material much valued both in China and Europe, its medicinal properties and uses had been well known to the world, Grosier did not talk too much about it, omitting many details about Da Huang's (大黄Radix et Rhizoma Rhei) production process explained by Father Dominique Parrenin in his original letters.

Dong Chong Xia Cao (冬虫夏草Cordyceps sinesis) boasts a high medicinal value and a history of more than 1000 years of medicinal use in China. The translation in Grosier's book is transliterated from the original phonetic notation (Hia-tsao-tong-kong) in the French and English versions. The editor explains in the footnote that “the Chinese meaning of this name refers to a plant that takes the form of grass in the summer but a worm in the winter”. It is mentioned in the Description Générale de la Chine that this medicinal material mainly grows in Tibet and its neighboring provinces of Sichuan, and Huguang, and is exceptionally rare. Dong Chong Xia Cao (冬虫夏草 Chinese caterpillar fungus) can fortify the stomach, strengthen the body, and relieve fatigue and its stunning effects amazed the missionaries who came to China. Grosier recounts Father Dominique Parrenin's personal experience. Due to frequent travels during the cold season, he was extremely tired, suffering decreased appetite, insomnia, and fatigue all of which were not alleviated through the various medications he was taking. Later, his friends namely the governors of Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces came to Beijing to meet with the emperor, bringing Dong Chong Xia Cao (冬虫夏草 Chinese caterpillar fungus) and teaching him to put the Dong Chong Xia Cao (冬虫夏草 Chinese caterpillar fungus) into the belly of a duck to make a stew. After the duck was cooked, the Dong Chong Xia Cao (冬虫夏草 Chinese caterpillar fungus) should be taken out, when the medicinal effect of the Dong Chong Xia Cao (冬虫夏草 Chinese caterpillar fungus) was infused into the duck meat. After taking this dietetic therapy for 8–10 days, Dominique sensed the miraculous effect and quickly improved his appetite and strength.

Later, Grosier introduces San Qi (三七 Radix Notoginseng), a type of readily available herb that primarily grows in Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces and Guizhou. The rootlets of San Qi (三七 Radix Notoginseng) grow from the main root and can be used as medicine to treat trauma, hemoptysis, excessive blood loss, as well as smallpox. Grosier states that missionaries in China personally saw patients' pustule wounds heal after taking San Qi (三七 Radix Notoginseng), thus indicating its medicinal efficacy.

The Description Générale de la Chine claims that Ren Shen (人参Radix Ginseng), the “Queen of Plants”, is the most precious and rare among Chinese medicinal plants. A detailed description of Ren Shen includes its morphological characteristics, growing environment, distribution areas, harvesting regulations, and market price, together with a brief list of its medicinal effects that the Chinese admire such as eliminating fatigue, restoring strength, alleviating hangover, curing vomiting, fortifying the stomach and digestion, refreshing the brain, and prolonging life.

In addition, in Description Générale de la Chine, there is an introduction to Fu Ling (茯苓 Poria) and Di Huang (地黄 Radix Rehmanniae Recens). The Tuckahoe-related section of the book explains Fu Ling (茯苓 Poria)'s characteristics, growing environment, areas of origin, and contraindications, emphasizing that this mild medicinal herb is primarily used to treat liver and lung diseases, asthma, edema, dysuria, and vomiting and that it can warm the core and dissipate cold and helping with a smooth delivery. Di Huang (地黄 Radix Rehmanniae Recens) is a medicinal material that Grosier believed to have a strong health-care effect. It is mentioned that Chinese doctors would combine Di Huang (地黄 Radix Rehmanniae Recens) with other five types of herbs to make Liu Wei Di Huang Pill (六味地黄丸), something that wealthy people would allegedly take every morning to stay healthy. The original book translates the five types of supporting herbs as aromatics (aromates), cardiotonics (codiaux), diuretics (diulétiques), acidulants (acides), and sleep aids (légers soporifiques) all of which are slightly different from the actual ingredient names used in TCM for this formula: Di Huang (地黄 Radix Rehmanniae Recens), Shan Zhu Yu (山萸肉), Mu Dan Pi (牡丹皮 Cortex Moutan Radicis), Shan Yao (山药 Chinese yam), Fu Ling (茯苓 Poria), and Ze Xie (泽泻 Rhizoma Alismatis).

  TCM Knowledge in the Description Générale de la Chine Top

In one chapter, Grosier integrates knowledge and records of TCM from the writings of several generations of Jesuits, added his own comments, and summarizes traditional Chinese medical views, diagnosis, treatment experience, and life nurturing and disease prevention techniques. These points played a role in promoting the spread of TCM to the West.

Core ideas

Huang Di Nei Jing (《黄帝内经》Huangdi's Internal Classic) mentioned that “the human body has its shape and cannot do without yin (阴) and yang (阳). The five viscera are yin, and the six bowels are yang.” This is an important theory in TCM which reveals that a human being is an organism that consists of opposing yin and yang, with connections within its structure and between different parts. Grosier certainly has an understanding of this theory. He introduces the Chinese belief that the unity of opposites between yin and yang exists in the upper and lower parts, the internal and external parts, the exterior and interior parts, the front and back parts of the human body as well as among the internal organs. Essence and qi constitute the basic materials of the human body, maintaining human life and energy. Later, it briefly explains the theory of the five viscera and the six bowels in TCM where the “five viscera” refer to the heart, liver, spleen, lung, and kidney, constituting the center of the yin, while the “six bowels” refer to the gallbladder, stomach, large intestine, small intestine, bladder, and triple energizer, constituting the center of the yang. Although these organs are divided by form and function, they are not isolated but mutually cooperative and conducive. Therefore, the Chinese believe that the body will not get sick with smooth circulation and unimpeded movement of blood and qi, as well as the harmony of yin and yang.

Theories on diagnostic methods

The Description Générale de la Chine describes the four examination methods of “inspection, listening, smelling, inquiry, and palpation” in TCM. Grosier believes that pulse diagnosis is superb and sometimes there is no need to ask the patient too much. By just taking the pulse, the doctor may come to discern where the patient is hurt, and which disease is the most severe to confirm the course and duration of the disease as well as the type of treatment to be given. To help European readers intuitively know the Chinese pulse diagnosis method, Grosier also borrows Jean-Baptiste Du Halde's words, comparing the human body to a musical instrument that would change along with changes to the shape, situation, purpose, and performance fingerings. Accordingly, a person's pulse condition resembles a string, which will emit various tones based on its tightness, height, and strength. From this point of view, a Chinese doctor can determine what conditions of the patient's body is in.

Mechanism of disease and therapeutic principle

Grosier regards TCM as something extensive and profound with an extensive history. Since ancient times, Chinese people have had an excellent tradition of writing medical books upon whose information many famous works have drawn. Moreover, these books provide indispensable resources for European doctors. Chinese doctors believe that since there are many causes of disease and any disease would affect the internal organs from one of which the cause can spread to another. Moreover, the disease progression is complicated. A small lesion can cause others, so the principles of dialectical treatment and seeking the root of the disease should be emphasized in the process of treatment and medication.

Grosier emphasizes that Chinese medicine pays special attention to experience inheritance and summarizes herbal medicine, acupuncture, and moxibustion methods, vaccination methods, life-nurturing methods, and forensic medicine as the strength of TCM. For example, he mentions that China's herbal medicine library covers a wide range of aspects and undergoes a process of standard organization. The Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (《神农本草经》Classic of Materia Medica), the earliest known traditional Chinese herbal monograph, recorded the nature, taste, and origin of hundreds of Chinese herbal medicines. Its author Shennong is thought to be the originator of TCM. Moreover, the Chinese people who deeply understand different medicinal properties of Chinese herbs and can flexibly and aptly combine various medicinal materials to treat diseases.

Acupuncture and moxibustion, in Grosier's words, are special treatments in TCM. He mentioned again that the warm acupuncture and moxibustion therapy using Ai Cao (艾草 Folium Artemisiae Argyi). He also expresses his confusion about how Chinese doctors determine the acupuncture points needed for the condition, the number of needles, and the needling technique, viewing this as the secret method of acupuncture.

Regarding vaccination method, Grosier mentions that the history of vaccination in China is earlier than that in Europe. The Chinese people, who think of it as a “congenital disease”, can identify more than 40 kinds of smallpox and so they can deal with smallpox differently according to the climate, the age of the patients, and the constitution.

For life nurturing, Grosier emphasizes that the Chinese people are in the habit of taking nourishment from food or herbs, believing that nourishment is a necessary means to prevent diseases. In addition, during the period of illness, patients must follow doctors' instructions to control diet and restrain from drinking raw cold water.

Finally, Grosier talks in his book about Chinese forensic medicine. He believes that although the Chinese have hardly ever dissected a corpse, their knowledge is not superficial. Particularly in the forensic appraisal, they have unique techniques that help determine whether a person has died naturally or by brutality in the form of hanging himself or being strangled, getting drowned, or being thrown into the water after being murdered. Even if a corpse is decomposed, they can still complete the autopsy. Since the ancient times of China, quite a number of forensic techniques have been passed down from generation determining the extent of injury; and a bone examination starting with the skin, muscles, and bones damaged premortem or postmortem, thereby providing accurate evidence for the case's conclusion. Moreover, these forensic techniques are worth getting across to the interested Europeans.

  Conclusions Top

The missionaries who came to China in the 17th and 18th centuries introduced relevant knowledge and theories of TCM to Europe, some of which are similar to European medicine theories and have became a focus of European medical circles of the time, such as pulse diagnosis, acupuncture, vaccination, herbalism, among others. However, They reacted rather flatly to other aspects of Chinese medicine and even expressed a certain degree of misunderstanding and distrust.

Judging from the attitudes of the missionaries in China, the Europeans' attitude toward TCM encompassed two viewpoints. One was to belittled and looked down on TCM, thinking that TCM doctors treated patients solely based on their experiences from practices, unwilling to learn the knowledge of other subjects that can aid medical progress, such as philosophy, anatomy, and natural science, which was a huge flaw in the eyes of the Europeans. Even among the relatively enlightened Jesuits, some did not have a natural liking for TCM as they did for other outstanding achievements of the Chinese civilization. In a letter to the French Academy of Sciences, Father Dominique Parrenin mentioned that even Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty believed TCMs knowledge system to be incomplete without the addition of anatomy knowledge needed to guide doctors in the diagnosis, treatment, and surgical operations of patients. Therefore, this emperor ordered Parrenin to translate a European anatomy book and medical encyclopedia into Manchu.[3] Louis le Comte held a similar view in his Nouveaux mémoires sur l'état present de la Chine, saying that despite China's advanced pulse science, a lack of understanding of the anatomy and physics never led to the significant progression of TCM. To gain fame sometimes, doctors would make false claims by adopting superstitious pseudoscience practices.[2] Due to huge differences in medical concepts, ways of thinking, and principles of diagnosis and treatment between Chinese and Western medicine systems, coupled with translation difficulty, some missionaries have developed misunderstandings and negative views toward TCM. When such negative information was transmitted back to France, false opinions were ubiquitously spread, generating prejudices. Especially when “Western scientific circles judged TCM against the European standards based on human anatomy and experimental medicine, they found something vague in such things as the yin-yang theory, the five phase theory, essence, qi and spirit theory, as well as meridian and collateral theory, all of which cannot be intensively elaborated or demonstrated in a laboratory system. Hence, pride and prejudice will uncontrollably reveal themselves.”[4]

Another view was to evaluate TCM characteristics and achievements objectively and fairly from the perspective of an inter-cultural comparison, which was the attitude of the missionaries who personally experienced TCM therapies for treating their own illnesses. These missionaries recovered from their illnesses by adopting TCM therapies or taking TCM medications, which further deepened their understanding and trust in TCM as well as their enthusiastic willingness to introduce this unique oriental medicine and pharmacy to the Europeans. For example, the Portuguese Jesuit Alvare de Semedo (1585–1658) mentioned in The History of That Great and Renowned Monarchy of China (《大中国志》) that he witnessed several sick priests in Nanjing City and Jiangxi Province who became healthy after their treatment by TCM doctors.[5] Jesuit Jean-Joseph-Marie Amiot (1718–1793) also had a personal experience of recovering from illness by receiving TCM treatment, and he had done a lot of in-depth research on TCM. TCM has a long history in the writings of these missionaries. It is a self-contained system, with outstanding achievements being made in pulse diagnosis, herbal medicine, vaccine, and life nurturing.

In the second half of the 18th century, Grosier came to acquire a more positive attitude toward TCM from within the missionaries' reports when compiling the Description Générale de la Chine, delivering an overall positive and objective tone. In this book, he tells the Europeans that the history of Chinese medicine is as old as the empire itself whose people have acquired both superb sphygmology skills and herbal medicine. More importantly, with a scientific and rigorous view of TCM, Grosier admitted its shortcomings and limitations while discarding excessive misunderstanding and depreciation to discover the values and strengths of TCM and that the Europeans can learn from it. He points out that the Chinese are indeed neither great anatomists nor knowledgeable natural scientists. However, this does not hinder the tremendous progress made within their medicine, which amazed the best doctors in Europe. Regarding the underdevelopment of the knowledge of anatomy that has been repeatedly criticized in TCM, Grosier went the other way, using the accuracy of the pulse diagnosis method of Chinese medicine to grasp the disease to infer that, in fact, the Chinese people may have much more knowledge and understanding of anatomy than the Europeans had imagined. Grosier also praises the writing style of the Chinese medical books, especially that in the flora description, stating that when introducing and describing a plant, the Chinese tend to mark its highest-quality place of origin behind the term, as they understand that soil and climate diversity will cause the plant to produce different qualities and effects. Comparatively, Europe's botany research lacks this information, so it is important that the Europeans learn from the Chinese in this regard.

Grosier's introduction of and attention to TCM is partly due to his interest and study in Chinese culture for years and partly because of a focal shift on Chinese knowledge from historical humanities to practical natural science and technology in France. The writing materials that Grosier mastered primarily came from the missionary reports of the French Jesuits who came to China over the years and their correspondence with Chinese political and academic circles. King Louis XIV sent “Jesuit mathematicians” to China helped establish the dominance of French missionary in 1687. It marked the beginning of the prosperous Catholic missions in China. This event also pointed to an organic combination of missionary Sinology study with diplomatic relations, scientific investigation, and religious dissemination. To cater to the new needs of people from all walks of life in China for domestic and diplomatic affairs, the Jesuits gradually shifted their attentions from traditional Chinese culture to natural sciences, writing more articles on the Qing Dynasty's current affairs, science, techniques, and crop production. Therefore, the frequency of the introduction to China's science and technology became much greater than before. All of these translations provided a solid informational foundation for the incorporation of TCM into Grosier's Description Générale de la Chine.

In the late 18th century, when Grosier was writing his book, the “Chinese cultural fever” that had once swept across Europe began to ebb down. Moreover, despite a lingering desire by the common people and within intellectual circles in Europe to comprehensively understand China, some radical Eurocentrists spread hatred and distrust of Chinese civilization. In this regard, Grosier maintained an independent thinking and an objective attitude typical of a scholar, harboring an academic mind featuring open-mindedness, inclusiveness, and mutual respect toward Chinese culture in the missionary Sinology era. He fully recognized China's long history and civilization achievements. His attitude was rare considering that the voices of “Sinophobies” gradually gained traction with the European ideological and cultural circles. Grosier's book recorded various TCM characteristics and provided a fair, impartial review of Chinese science, technology, and medicine that was superior to Europe at the time. This promoted the comprehensive European understanding of TCM and the dialogue between Chinese and Western medicine as well. Together with other methods, theories, and classics of TCM introduced to Europe at the time, his book gave the European scientific community ample sources of knowledge and valuable first-hand materials to re-examine and enrich their own medical system using TCM research. This process is worthy of being written into the history of China-European scientific and cultural exchanges, the history of the spread of TCM to the west, and the history of Western Sinology. Understanding how this 18th-century European Sinology book helped spread TCM to the west will provide us with a practical significance to better implement the national development strategy of TCM and promote TCM to the world.

Translator: Yu Guan (管宇)


This study was financed by the National Social Science Foundation of China (No. 17ZDA195).

Ethical approval

The author has no ethical conflicts to disclose.

Conflicts of interest


  References Top

Gabriel JB. A general description of China. Tome Premier, Paris: Moutarl ; 1787. French.  Back to cited text no. 1
Le Comte L. Memoirs and observations, topographical, physical, mathematical, mechanical, natural, civil, and ecclesiastical made in a late journey through the empire of China. Zhengzhou: Elephant Press, 2004. p.195-201. Chinese.   Back to cited text no. 2
Du Halde JB. Edifying and curious letters, written by foreign missions memories of China. Trans. by Zheng DD, Lv YM, Shen J. Zhengzhou : Daxiang Publishing House ; 2005. p. 287. Chinese.   Back to cited text no. 3
Gao X. Spread and study of traditional Chinese medicine in the west since the 15th century. Chin Med Cult 2015; 6:15-24.  Back to cited text no. 4
Semedo A. The history of that great and renowned monarchy of China, Trans. by He GJ, Shanghai: Shanghai Chinese Classics Publishing House, 1998. p.69.  Back to cited text no. 5


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