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Year : 2021  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 137-140

Boym and Rémusat: Communication of traditional chinese medicine and the rise of western sinology

National Research Centre of Overseas Sinology, Beijing Foreign Studies University, Beijing 100081, China

Date of Submission25-Jun-2021
Date of Acceptance01-Aug-2021
Date of Web Publication30-Sep-2021

Correspondence Address:
Prof. Xi- Ping Zhang
National Research Centre of Overseas Sinology, Beijing Foreign Studies University, Beijing 100089
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_34_21

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This article provides an introduction to Michel Boym (1612–1659) and Jean Pierre Abel Rémusat (1788–1832) and examines the research on traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) conducted by the two prominent sinologists. This work points out that Michel Boym introduced TCM to the West and Rémusat was the first to write a doctoral thesis on TCM. A historical overview of the translation, communication and impact of TCM in Europe at that time reveals that this communication of TCM to the West played a significant role in the rise of the study of Sinology in Europe.

Keywords: Jean Pierre Abel Rémusat, Michel Boym, sinology, traditional Chinese medicine

How to cite this article:
Zhang XP. Boym and Rémusat: Communication of traditional chinese medicine and the rise of western sinology. Chin Med Cult 2021;4:137-40

How to cite this URL:
Zhang XP. Boym and Rémusat: Communication of traditional chinese medicine and the rise of western sinology. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2021 [cited 2021 Oct 26];4:137-40. Available from: https://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2021/4/3/137/327161

  Introduction Top

The study of sinology could be divided into Missionary Sinology and Academic Sinology. The historical roots of sinology in France becoming the birthplace of Academic Sinology (or sinology as an academic discipline) lie in the social and cultural advances in France and the leading research in Missionary Sinology undertaken by Jesuit missionaries.

  Rise of Sinology in France Top

Since the arrival of the five French Jesuit missionaries (known as the King's Mathematicians) sent by the King Louis XIV in China, French Jesuits had played a central role pioneering research in Missionary Sinology. The study reached an apex with the publication of Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, Histoire Universelle de la Chine, Mémoires concernant l'histoire, les sciences, les arts, les moeurs, les usages, & c. des Chinois: par les missionnaires de Pékin, etc., in Paris. The translated works, represented by Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, introduced the original magnum opus of Chinese philosophy hitherto unknown to European readers and mapped the Chinese intellectual and spiritual landscape. It caused quite a stir in Europe. For one hundred years, the works by these missionaries attracted the attention of the learned intellectuals in Europe with their exotic novelty and, more importantly, “a vast library of images and thoughts. Europe found itself being not the center of the world…like other foreign literatures travelling to Europe; these works contributed on a large scale to the disintegration of the old system and developed a relative significance in a system of ideas at its critical moment of crisis.”[1] Chinese philosophy and thinking were recognized, spread, and became part of the revolution in thinking modes and cultural attitudes in Europe, spurring sinophilia in 18th century France and laying the foundation for French sinology. Aptly stated by the French sinologist Édouard Chavannes, “one remains amazed at the enormous work accomplished by the French missionaries. Placed before a formidable civilization by its history, variety, and extent, these pioneers paved the way to enabling their successors to navigate this immense field of study and decide on their research priorities.”[2]

In the meantime, research on Chinese studies by sinologists in France continued to advance. The more well-known figure was Arcadio Huang (1679–1716), who was born in Fujian, China and was brought to Paris by Artus de Lionne (1655–1713), a member of the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris.[3] The works by Arcadio Huang include the first Chinese grammar book Grammatica Sinica and the first Chinese-French dictionary. He was the first to translate Chinese novels into French, and more importantly, he was instrumental in shaping the works written by both Fourmont (1683–1745) and Nicolas Fréretm (1688–1749). Just as Joseph Dehergne (1903–1990) put it, “The arrival of Arcadio Huang proved pivotal to French Sinology.” He was highly praised by Xu Minglong, who wrote, “Arcadio Huang, although an ordinary Chinese, conveyed reliable information on China that helped Montesquieu and the Enlightenment philosophers to acquire a comprehensive vision of China. He contributed to a good start of the Chinese studies in France, leaving behind him some valuable manuscripts.”[3] From then on, Chinese studies in France began to transfer from priest scholars to secular scholars and grew through the continuous efforts of Fourmont, Fréretm, and Chrétien Lauis De Guignes (1759–1845), making it possible for secular scholars such as Rémusat to be appointed to sinology teaching posts.[4]

One further fact is notable: approval and support from distinguished academics, for example, Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy (1758–1838), a scholar and an orientalist who served as commissary-general in the Cour des monnaies and Director of the Collège de France. When setting up the School of Oriental Languages, he found himself sharing the view of Jean Pierre Abel Rémusat about introducing Chinese studies into existing scholarly disciplines. Jean Pierre Abel Rémusat published an Essay on Chinese Language and Literature and a paper on the Chinese learning foreign languages. Backed by the strong recommendation of Silvestre de Sacy, Rémusat was appointed as the first Chair in Chinese Studies. On April 5, 1816, again on the recommendation of Silvestre de Sacy, he was elected a member of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres.[5] It is with such “opportunities of time, advantages of situation afforded by the Earth and the union arising from the accord of Men” that Rémusat became the pioneer in Western Academic Sinology.

  Michel Boym's Contribution to French Academic Sinology Top

Rémusat is central to the founding of French sinology. Even with all the societal and developmental advantages mentioned above, French sinology would never have achieved its heyday without his efforts and works. Rémusat learnt Chinese on his own from books brought back by French missionaries, the Notitia linguae sinicae written by Joseph de Prémare and the research of Fourmont playing an essential role.[6] Works of the Jesuits engaged his attention, particularly the research on Chinese medicine by Polish Jesuit Michel Boym (1612–1659).

Michel Boym was born in a family of physicians. His father Pawel, a prominent doctor, was the royal physician to the Polish King. Pawel studied medicine at the University of Padua, which was renowned for fostering such scholars as Andreas Vesalius, founder of the modern human anatomy, Girolamo Fracastoro (1478–1553), a pioneer of European epidemiology, and Copernicus, the renowned scientist and astronomer. In his will, Pawel expressed his wish that his sons and grandsons became physicians.

In spite of his father's wish, Michael Boym chose to study theology. In the meantime, he was interested in European medicine and read widely in the then important works on Western medicine. This interest in medicine betrayed itself in his preface to The Medical Key to the Doctrine of the Chinese on Pulses and the one to Auctoris Vám Xó Hó pulsibus explanatis medendi regula. His subsequent interest in Chinese medicine was to be expected.

Michael Boym was the first European to conduct in-depth research into Chinese medicine. However, his efforts were not acknowledged by the European academia until much later. Plagiarism in relation to knowledge about China was rife in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. The quaintness and rarity of resources relating to China resulted in books on China being repeatedly copied, adapted, pirated and counterfeited. Boym's works were no exception. His keen interest in Chinese medicine led him to do further research while he was in China. The first reference to his own medical work appeared in the report he wrote under the title Brieve relazione della memorabile conversionne di persone regali di quella corte alle religione christiani, which was published after he returned to Rome. A French translation, Briesve Relation de la Notable Conversion des Personnes Royales et l estat de la Religion Chrestienne en Chine. Faicte par le tres R.P. Michel Boym de la Compagnie de Jesus, was later published in Paris in 1654. In the report, he wrote that he was to publish a book on Chinese medicine, saying that “Chinese medicine is a special practice using pulse diagnosis to predict the symptoms and foresee the outcome of illness, with a history dating back to centuries before Christianity. Pulse diagnosis originated in China. Chinese medicine is admirable and differs from the European medicine.”

Boym also published the Flora Sinensis in Vienna in 1656. “In this book, Boym introduced a series of plants and animals used in Chinese medicine, such as ginger, Chinese root, Chinese cassia, pepper, areca catechu, Chinese rhubarb, snake gallbladder, and snake venom. In some instances, Boym further explained the medicinal's flavor, nature (warm or cold) and what illness it might treat from the point of view of the Europeans.”[7] Plants in the Flora Sinensis extended from plants Boym saw in China to those in India. Polish sinologist Edward Kajdański believed that the Flora Sinensis might be the only published work of Boym that he himself had ever seen during his lifetime.

Boym's work on Chinese medicine had been completed when he returned to China from Rome. However, he was met with the rough humor of history: By then, China had been taken over by the Manchus and the Yongli Southern Ming court to which Boym had remained loyal had been overthrown. He was therefore banned from traveling to China through Macau. It was then that he handed his manuscript of the study on Chinese medicine over to Father Philippe Couplet (1624–1692) and after that, Boym's work on Chinese medicine started a journey full of twists and turns.

Instead of sending Boym's manuscript back to Europe for publication, Couplet gave it to “a Dutch merchant named Jan van Rick, who mailed it to Batavia in Indonesia, where it was confiscated by Johann Maetsuyker, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, who reckoned that the medical text would prove useful to his doctor and pharmacist.”[7] This pharmacist was Andreas Cleyer, a Dutchman and the chief doctor of the Dutch East India company living in Batavia. In 1682, Cleyer sent the manuscript of the Specimen Medicinae Sinicae to the German sinologist Christian Mentzel (1622–1701). With Mentzel's help, the book was published in Frankfurt under the name of Andreas Cleyer, altogether omitting Boym's name.

Andreas Cleyer was the first to plagiarize Boym's medical works. In 1671, he published a book in France entitled Les secrets de la medecine des Chinois, consistant en la parfaite connaissance du pouls: Envoyez de la Chine par un Français, Homme de grand mérite. Pelliot says that this Frenchman in Canton is Andreas Cleyer himself, who is perhaps also the author of parts II and III of the Specimen Medicinae Sinicae. Pelliot, however, could not determine which missionary in Canton wrote the book. Polish sinologist Edward Kajdański believed that the “Les secrets de la medecine des Chinois is undoubtedly part of Boym's medical works.”

In 1680, Cleyer published a couple of other works, one under the title Herbarium parvum Sinicis vocabulis indici insertis constans, another under the title Clavis medica ad Chinarum doctrinam de pulsibus published in Frankfurt, which appears to be an excerpt of the previous one.[8]

Four years after the publication of Cleyer's Specimen Medicinae Sinicae, Mentzel published a book on Chinese medicine in Germany. In 1686, he published Clavis Medica ad Chinarum Doctrinam De Pulsibus. Autore R.P. Michaele Boymo, e Soc. Jesu, and in China Missionario (The Medical Key to the Doctrine of the Chinese on Pulses) in Nuremberg's annals of science, clearly stating that the author of this work is Boym. It is from Mentzel's publication of the Medical Key that Boym's works started to gain recognition and subsequently put a halt to plagiarism of his works.

At the end of his Briefve relation de la notable conversion des personnes royales, Boym mentioned that he had written the Medicus Sinicus. In his book China illustrata, Kircher referred to a work on medicine written by Boym, which, as Pelliot concludes, is surely Clavis medica.[9]

  Rémusat's Research in Chinese Medicine Top

On November 29, 1814, Jean Pierre Abel Rémusat (1788–1832), the young French sinologist, was appointed the first Chair of Chinese Studies (”Chaire de langues et littératures chinoises et tartares-mandchoues”) at the Collège de France. This was a day worth to remember. “The establishment of the very first Chair in Chinese studies at the College of France brought about a massive change in the Chinese studies landscape. This is a key date for both French and European sinology when Chinese studies first became part of a university curriculum in the West.”[10],[11],[12]

Rémusat had been closely following the publication in Europe of Boym's works on Chinese medicine and was fully aware of how Boym's works were copied and plagiarized. He said, “but these are weaker titles for Boym, compared with his translation of four books by Wang-cho-ho on knowledge of the pulse. Signes des maladies par le couleur de la langue and Exposition des mndicamens simples were both written by Boym based on Chinese medical works, containing 289 articles.” All these works, and some other fragments that Father Couplet had passed on to Batavia, in 1658, to be transported to Europe, were, as a result of dissatisfaction of the Dutch company with regard to the Jesuits of China, deprived of the name of their author, and published in Frankfurt in 1682 by Andreas Cleyer, chief doctor of the Dutch East Indies, under the title of Specimen medicinæ Sinicæ. The plagiarist editor there also inserted some pieces translated from Chinese, and probably by the same Jesuit, but which had not been sent from Canton until 1669 and 1670. We find in the same volume 143 figures engraved in wood, and thirty intaglio plates, all of which would give a very unfavorable idea of the knowledge of the Chinese in anatomy, had we not known that the original works of Boym contained much better information on this. Part I of Specimen Medicinae Sinicae inserts 29 woodcut illustrations and one intaglio plate while parts II and III are analyses by a European textual critic, “several letters sent from Canton by this critic are included in part IV.”[8]

Boym's works inspired Rémusat's doctoral thesis carrying the title Dissertatio de glossosemeiotice, sive de signis morborum quae è linguâ sumuntur, praesertim apud Sinenses,in which Rémusat spoke highly of Chinese medicine thus. “In China perhaps no subject is more advanced than medicine and none of the physicians in the world can be compared to the Chinese physicians. They had studied medicine since the beginning of the empire. The venerated emperors are considered inventors and promotors of medicine.”[13] Books on Chinese medicine were very rare in France. Rémusat says that “a work fairly easy to read is the book translated by Boym from Chinese into Latin and this book was later copied, compiled and published by Cleyer under his own name.” This doctoral thesis was largely a translation of and introduction to Boym's manual on tongue diagnosis, and it presented a comparative study of Chinese medicine's tongue diagnosis and treatment, as well as the Western treatments.

Rémusat's doctoral thesis, naturally, “is written within the framework of western medicine and rhetoric. Within this framework, all statements and arguments about Chinese and western medicine were made and western medicine was used to explain causes of signs and symptoms manifested in the appearance of the tongue, falls within this framework. The purpose is not to create new ideas or make discoveries in tongue diagnosis but rather to attempt to prove, through a comparative study of the Chinese and western medicine, that they are congenial and kindred.”[13] He cited statements from Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, and other scholars, while also explicitly proclaimed that all these are centered on Chinese medicine, as shown in the title Dissertatio de glossosemeiotice, sive de signis morborum quae è linguâ sumuntur, praesertim apud Sinenses. Rémusat cited Boym's study on tongue diagnosis in Chinese medicine and based his comparative study on Boym's translation and research on Chinese medicine. One of his aims in writing this thesis was to prove the value of Chinese medicine, and he reasserted in the conclusion that “I've clearly demonstrated that the tongue diagnosis of Chinese medicine is compatible with doctrines of European medicine. Through all these indications and the modes of treatment choices, their talent shines. I'm not amazed that such an opinion is in complete opposition to those who think the books published so far on Chinese medicine are futile and untruthful.”[13]

  Conclusions Top

The process of transmitting knowledge from China to the West is cumulative and progressive. Communication of TCM should be studied within the historical framework of sinology. Chinese studies in the West is to be examined in the context of their history by taking a bibliographical approach, i.e., “to analyze texts and elucidate their meanings and values, to investigate and trace the origin and development of branches of learning,” and conducting a critical study of each stage, each sinologist and each specific text. TCM research from a sinology perspective calls for historical inquiry into the development of sinology. Through the transmission of Chinese culture to the West from the 16th to 18th centuries, knowledge of TCM had been assimilated into the repertoire of knowledge in Europe and the Western sinologists drew upon such knowledge for their research. Among them, Michael Boym was the first to introduce TCM to the West and Rémusat was the first to write a doctoral thesis on TCM. Their efforts to communicate TCM to the West contributed greatly to the rise of Academic Sinology (or sinology as an academic discipline) in Europe.

Translator: Li-Hong Wei (魏立红).


This study was financed by the grant from the Major Projects of National Social Science Foundation of China (No. 14ZDB116).

Ethical approval

The author has no ethical conflicts to disclose.

Conflicts of interest


  References Top

Etiemble R. Jacques Gernet. Jesuits and east-west cultural exchanges during the Ming. Translated by Geng S. Chengdu: Bashu Press; 1993. Chinese.   Back to cited text no. 1
Chavannes E. La sinologiee Paris: Librairie Larousse;1915.p.5. French.  Back to cited text no. 2
Xu YL. Arcadio huang and early French sinology. Beijing: The Commercial Press; 2014.p.7. Chinese.  Back to cited text no. 3
Long Y. The rise of sinology in France. International Sinology 2007;2:7. Chinese.   Back to cited text no. 4
Sun S. The establishment of sinology in France [dissertation]; Beijing Foreign Studies University; 2015. Chinese.  Back to cited text no. 5
Rémusat A. Discussion on Matteo Ricci and Johann Adam Schall von Bell. International Sinology 2017;2:29-32. Chinese.  Back to cited text no. 6
Boym M. Michel Boym's collected works. Translated by Edward Kajdański, Zhang ZH, Zhang XP. Shanghai: East China Normal University Press; 2013.p.27. Chinese.  Back to cited text no. 7
Rémusat A. A collection of comments and memoirs of Michel Boym, Schubart and Heideloff, Paris, 1829. p. 226-228. French.  Back to cited text no. 8
Pelliot P, Boym M. Correction for Michel Boym's Works. Translated by Feng BJ. A study of the history and geography of the south China sea in the western regions, vol.3. Beijing: The Commercial Press, 1999.p. 234. Chinese.   Back to cited text no. 9
Demiéville P, Qin SY. A summary of the history of sinology in France. Jiangxi: China Peace Publishing House;1996.p.29. Chinese.  Back to cited text no. 10
Li H. The first academic sinologist in Europe: Abel-Remusat. International Sinology 2015;2:13. Chinese.  Back to cited text no. 11
Luo Y. Recent research on the translation of Zhong Yong by Able-Remusat: a study of the link between missionary sinology and early academic sinology. International Sinology 2014;1:97. Chinese.  Back to cited text no. 12
Li H. A study of Abel-Rémusat's doctoral dissertation: dissertatio de glossosemeiotice international sinology 2016;4:180. Chinese.  Back to cited text no. 13


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