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Table of Contents
Year : 2021  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 176-180

Sinology in seattle: The university of washington and its influence on the study of Chinese medicine

Department of Asian Languages and Literature, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA

Date of Submission17-Jul-2021
Date of Acceptance12-Aug-2021
Date of Web Publication30-Sep-2021

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Sean Bradley
Department of Asian Languages and Literature, University of Washington, Seattle WA 98195
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_31_21

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The University of Washington has played a pivotal role in the field of sinology with faculty and alumni producing major publications in Chinese history, literature, phonetics, and linguistics. These contributions have been instrumental in the development of sinology as a field and have both directly and indirectly influenced the study of Chinese Medicine. By tracing the history of the Department of Asian Languages and Literature and examining several major figures, we can better understand how these individuals shaped the development of Chinese Medicine and contributed to its spread worldwide.

Keywords: Chinese medicine, history, influence, Seattle, sinology

How to cite this article:
Bradley S. Sinology in seattle: The university of washington and its influence on the study of Chinese medicine. Chin Med Cult 2021;4:176-80

How to cite this URL:
Bradley S. Sinology in seattle: The university of washington and its influence on the study of Chinese medicine. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2021 [cited 2021 Oct 26];4:176-80. Available from: https://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2021/4/3/176/327158

  Introduction Top

There are few famous scholars in the field of sinology in the West that have worked primarily on Chinese Medicine. Sinologists such as Paul Unschuld (文树德), Joseph Needham (李约瑟), Donald Harper (夏德安), and Nathan Sivin (席文) are well-known for their work in expanding the study of Chinese Medicine, but there are few others who have focused on this area.

Interest in Chinese Medicine, however, is quickly growing both clinically and academically as there is better access to Chinese references and resources. Many sinologists who came before laid the foundation for improved translations and research methods, and a better understanding of the Chinese language and culture. In addition to the scholars mentioned above who are known for their work in Chinese medicine, there are numerous other scholars that have made major contributions improving the study of sinology that have directly or indirectly affected the study of Chinese Medicine. One place where major advances in the field of sinology have taken place and done just this is at the University of Washington in Seattle.

  Sinology at the University of Washington Top

Over the course of its history, the University of Washington [Figure 1]a and [Figure 1]b has had numerous professors and graduates that have impacted the world of sinology not just in the US, but worldwide. As the university grew and changed, notable scholars including Erwin Reifler (罗逸民1903–1965), K. C. Hsiao (萧公权1897–1981), Li Fang Kuei (李方桂1902–1987), Hellmut Wilhelm (卫德明1905–1990), Isabella Yen (严倚云1912–1991), Paul L-M. Serruys (司礼义1912–1999), Vincent Y. C. Shih (施友忠1902–2001), Hok-lam Chan (陈学霖1938–2011), and Jerry Norman (罗杰瑞1936–2012) among others, made contributions to the study of Chinese language and literature. By looking at a few individuals, we can better see how their study of sinology influenced the study of Chinese Medicine.
Figure 1: (a) Denny Hall of University of Washington (b) Cherry Blossoms at the University of Washington

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The Territorial University of Washington was founded on November 4th, 1861. With only 250 residents in the village of Seattle, there were very few collegiate students in the early years. It was not until 15 years later, in 1876 when Clara A. McCarty received a Bachelor of Science diploma.[1]

In 1889, it became the University of Washington, and in 1895 classes began at the current campus in the newly constructed Denny Hall. The Department of Oriental History, Literature, and Institutions, also known as the Department of Oriental Subjects, was founded in 1909 and its first faculty chair was Reverend Herbert H. Gowen. Reverend Gowen was an Anglican missionary and scholar who wrote works on Indian, Japanese, and Chinese history. He served as the chair for the department until 1929.

Over the course of the next several years, the department was restructured multiple with various new names including Oriental Life, History, Languages, and Literature; Oriental Life, Languages, Literature, and History; Oriental Studies; and Far Eastern Studies. Under the direction of Professor George E. Taylor, who studied in Peking in the early 1930s and assisted the Eighth Route Army in North China by smuggling them medical supplies during WWII, the department became the Far Eastern and Slavic Languages and Literature.

Erwin Reifler, an Austrian-born philologist, taught at the University of Washington from 1947 to 1965. He published works on comparative semantics and presented an influential paper at the American Philosophical Society conference in 1948 titled, the Chinese Language in the Light of Comparative Semantics.[2] He was also instrumental in the early study of machine translation and published works such as The Mechanical Determination of Meaning in Machine Translation of Languages edited by William N. Locke and A. Donald Booth in 1955.[3] As an early pioneer in machine translation, his work spurred on the research that continues to this day with enormous machine translation projects and services such as Google translate.

Li Fang Kuei was a Chinese linguist born in Guangzhou during the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). Li earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1928 and taught at the University of Washington from 1949 to 1969. He is well known for his work in linguistics and phonology, publishing research on Chinese, Tai, Tibetan, and Athabaskan languages. His work on Chinese dialects, minority languages, and reconstructions of Middle Chinese (中古汉语) and Old Chinese (上古汉语) continue to be influential. His Old Chinese reconstruction published in the 1970s made significant improvements on the earlier work of the renowned linguist, Bernhard Karlgren (高本汉1889–1978) before eventually being largely replaced once again in the 1990s.[4] Old and Middle Chinese reconstructions have provided invaluable information on the Chinese languages as a whole. Information on medical exchange and the incorporation of foreign medicines into Chinese Medicine is made much more accessible as these reconstructions provide greater insight into the language at various periods in history.

Hellmut Wilhelm was a German sinologist who earned his Ph.D. in 1932 from the University of Berlin. He taught at the University of Washington from 1948 to 1971. Wilhelm's work on the Yi Jing (《易经》Classic of Changes) built upon the famous translation done by his father, Richard Wilhelm (卫礼贤1873–1930) in 1950. Two collections of Hellmut Wilhelm's lectures on the Yi Jing, Change: Eight Lectures on the I-Ching, and Heaven, Earth, and Man in the Book of Changes: Seven Eranos Lectures, remain foundational texts for the study of this important classical work. His student and professor emeritus at the University of Washington, David Knechtges said after his passing, “Professor Wilhelm was among the last of the universalist China scholars, who knew China at first hand and from its great books. He was the embodiment of the Chinese ideal of the chun-tzu (君子), a princely man and gentleman of learning and high moral character.”[5] As Chinese Medicine works are often laden with references to the early classics, especially the Yi Jing, Wilhelm's work sheds light on one of the most complicated texts in the Chinese corpus, making it more accessible to scholars.

Another important sinologist at the University of Washington during these years was Vincent Shih. Shih earned his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in 1939 and taught at the University of Washington from 1945 to 1973. His later years were part of the Far Eastern and Russian Studies Institute which would later become the Henry Jackson School of International Studies. Shih was active in researching modern China, but his work The Literary Mind and Carving of Dragons, a translation of the Wen Xin Diao Long (《文心雕龙》Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons) by Liu Xie (刘勰 465–522) is still the most influential Western-language translation of this monumental work of literary criticism.

In 1969, this department divided into the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature and the Department of Asian Languages and Literature.[6] He first chair of the newly formed Asian Languages and Literature department was Professor Turrell V. Wylie, who graduated from the University of Washington in 1958, and is best known for his work in Tibetan. The Wylie transliteration scheme that he developed for Tibetan that was published in 1959 continues to be the standard for Tibetan studies. The department continued to bring in new scholars that would go on to impact sinology.

Jerry Norman, an American linguist, completed his Ph.D. at Princeton University in 1969 and taught at the University of Washington from 1972 to 1998. He is known for his research on Chinese dialects, especially Min dialects (闵语) and their use in Old Chinese reconstruction. His work, Chinese, published in 1988, is widely used in the study of Chinese linguistics and dialects and is used at a textbook at many universities including the University of Washington.

A more recent scholar, who retired in 2014 after teaching at the University of Washington since 1972, is David Knechtges (康连维). After earning his Ph.D. at the University of Washington under Hellmut Wilhelm in 1968, Knechtges taught briefly at Harvard and Yale before returning to his alma mater. He is best known for his translation of the Wen Xuan (《文选》Selections of Refined Literature) that was compiled by Xiao Tong (萧统501–531) and others in the 6th century. His three-volume translation provides some of the best examples of translations of Chinese poetry into English. These translations give greater understanding of the poetry of that period and are helpful in understanding the larger body of literature from that time, including medical texts. It also serves as a model for the precise and accurate translation of a wide variety of topics. In addition to this, his multi-volume reference guide, Ancient and Early Medieval Chinese Literature, published with his wife, Taiping Chang, is a comprehensive resource for anyone studying Chinese literature. Many influential medical scholars and texts are discussed in this work, making it an important reference for researchers of Chinese Medicine. Knechtges continues to serve as an advisor to several students in the process of completing their dissertations.

Two more sinologists whose work has influence on the study of Chinese medicine, though also indirectly, are William Boltz and Zev Handel. Boltz, who earned his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley in 1974, began teaching at the University of Washington in 1981. A major work, The Origin, and Development of the Chinese Writing System, published in 1994, is imperative for understanding the Chinese script and dispels several common myths about the Chinese language. His research covers historical phonology, manuscript studies, philology, and textual studies. He was also involved in writing definitions for Paul Kroll's A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese which is considered the most reliable Classical Chinese dictionary for those studying and translating Classical Chinese texts into English. This has been especially valuable to scholars working with Classical Chinese Medicine texts.

Zev Handel earned a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998 and began working at the University of Washington in 1999. He works on Chinese historical linguistics and phonology, as well as the Chinese script, and has published extensively on these topics. He was an associate editor of the Encyclopedia of Chinese Language and Linguistics where he contributed a number of entries ranging from rime groups and phonology to Chinese characters and the zodiac. He also published a text on the Chinese writing system called Sinography: The Borrowing and Adaptation of the Chinese Script, in 2019.

The in-depth sinological study by the scholars mentioned above has profoundly influenced the field. This work has permeated all aspects of sinology including Chinese medicine. The translations, linguistic analysis, and historical study of these scholars have allowed for improved translations and contextual understanding of Chinese medicine.

  General Gains in Sinology to Specific Gains in Chinese Medicine Top

Much of the influence that the sinologists discussed thus far have had on Chinese Medicine has been indirect. They have improved the understanding of the Chinese language and literature advancing the field of sinology, and by extension have allowed for improved translations and interpretations of Chinese Medicine and the culture that surrounds it.

The scholars mentioned above only represent a small fraction of those individuals who have influenced the field of sinology but give a snapshot into the wide range of scholarship produced at the University of Washington's Department of Asian Language and Literature over the course of its history. While their publications may not directly reference Chinese Medicine, many of these books, articles, and lectures are used and referenced by translators and practitioners of Chinese Medicine to translate and better understand the primary texts in Chinese Medicine.

Current faculty members such as Boltz and Handel continue to improve the understanding of the Chinese language in the West and allow for improved translation while teaching students, some of whom directly work with Chinese Medicine, just as they, and some of their predecessors and colleagues, have done in the past.

Current students such as John Aguilar, a student of William Boltz, and myself, a student of David Knechtges, and are clinicians of Chinese medicine who are studying sinology at the University of Washington. Both of us are active in the field of Chinese Medicine clinically and academically. I have been able to use the teachings and work of my professors and predecessors to improve my translations of Chinese Medicine by better understanding allusions and complicated passages, interpreting difficult and obscure characters, and conduct more efficient research on the cross-cultural exchanges that have impacted Chinese culture.

  Direct Impact on Chinese Medicine Top

While most faculty members at the University of Washington have been directly involved in research on Chinese Medicine, there are the current students mentioned above, as well as graduates whose work in Chinese Medicine has made significant additions to the field. Three alumni, in particular, have been major contributors to the study of Chinese Medicine in the West: Dean C. Epler, Paul D. Buell, and Daniel Bensky.

Dean C. Epler began as a student of Hellmut Whilhelm and finished his doctorate with David Knechtges in 1977. His focus of the study was Chinese Medicine in the Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE), and his dissertation, The Concept of Disease in Two Third Century Medical Texts, provided a detailed study of the Shang Han Lun (《伤寒论》Treatise on Cold Damage) and the Huang Di Nei Jing (《黄帝内经》Huangdi's Internal Classic). He also wrote an influential article in 1980 on bloodletting and the origins of acupuncture.

Paul D. Buell was another graduate of the University of Washington, earning his M.A. degree under Jack Dull in 1968 and then continuing his studies in history earning a Ph.D. in 1977. He is a prolific writer with over 200 publications. His work, A Soup for the Qan is an in-depth study of Yin Shan Zheng Yao (《饮膳正要》Principles of Correct Diet) by Hu Sihui (忽思慧1314–1330) and the forthcoming Arabic Medicine in China: Tradition, Innovation, and Change will include a translation of the Hui Hui Yao Fang (《回回药方》Muslim formulary) from the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). These two previously untranslated texts provide significant insight into the cross-cultural exchanges involved in the development of Chinese Medicine. Buell is also a major contributor to the Ben Cao Gang Mu (《本草纲目》Compendium of Materia Medica) project spearheaded by Paul Unschuld that has already produced three dictionaries and four volumes of translation of the text by Li Shizhen


The final graduate of the University of Washington that has played a significant role in the development and study of Chinese Medicine is Daniel Bensky. Bensky earned a Diploma in Chinese Medicine from the Macau Institute of Chinese Medicine in 1975 and Doctor of Osteopathy from the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1982. He was a seasoned clinical physician before attending the University of Washington and earning his M.A. under William Boltz in 1996. He continued his studies in Chinese medicine earning a Ph.D. from the Chinese Academy of Traditional Chinese Medical Sciences in 2006. He has been extremely active in teaching, translating, lecturing, and in clinical practice especially as a founder of the Seattle Institute for East Asian Medicine which was accredited in 1998. Bensky is a distinguished author with two of his major works serving as the foundational texts for nearly all students of Chinese medicine in the US, Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica and Chinese Herbal Medicine: Formulas and Strategies. He was also a major contributor and editor of Acupuncture: A Comprehensive Text, which is also widely used.

These three graduates of the University of Washington show the direct influence that this Department of Asian Languages and Literature has had on the study of Chinese Medicine. This clear impact combined with the vast influence on the field of sinology in general by the scholars listed prior demonstrates how influential sinology at the University of Washington has been on the study of Chinese Medicine.

  Conclusions Top

The University of Washington remains one of the top universities in the United States, and in the world. According to the 2021 Best Global Universities ranking by U.S. News, which included over 1500 universities worldwide, University of Washington was ranked 8.[7] The university consistently has high rankings which take a variety of factors into consideration ranging from cost and facilities to job placement and faculty, but from an academic standpoint alone, it also maintains a very high reputation.

The Department of Asian Languages and Literature is no exception with faculty and alumni that continue to publish, lecture, and influence sinology in the West and worldwide. With this continued effect and the growing number of students focusing on Chinese Medicine as a niche in the sinological world, the study of sinology in Seattle at the University of Washington will continue to influence the growth and development of Chinese Medicine.

My personal experience as a doctoral student in this department has given me the opportunity to gain a much deeper understanding of Chinese Medicine and apply it to both my clinical practice and my research. Through the depth of knowledge of the professors and research rigor that is demanded at the University of Washington, the impact of the study of sinology in this department will continue to be influential to the general growth of sinology as a field, but also to the expansion and deeper understanding of Chinese Medicine.



Ethical approval

The author has no ethical conflicts to disclose.

Conflicts of interest

Sean Bradley is an editorial board member of Chinese Medicine and Culture. The article was subject to the journal's standard procedures, with peer review handled independently of this editorial board member and his research groups.

  References Top

The University of Washington's Early Years, University of Washington Libraries, University of Washington. Available from: http://www.lib.washington.edu. [Last accessed on 2021 Jul 12].  Back to cited text no. 1
Hugh H. The American philosophical society: abstracts of papers presented at 1948 meeting. J Sci 1948;107:586.  Back to cited text no. 2
Edwin R. The mechanical determination of meaning. USA: The Technology Press of M.I.T. and John Wiley & Sons; 1955. p. 136-64.  Back to cited text no. 3
Weldon SC, Li FK. Encyclopedia of Chinese language and linguistics. Vol. II. The Netherlands: Brill; 2017. p. 602.  Back to cited text no. 4
Knechtges DR. Hellmut Wilhelm, Sinologue and teacher. J Oriens Extremus 1992;35:19-21.  Back to cited text no. 5
Asian Languages and Literature. Available from: http://www.lib.washington.edu. [Last accessed on 2021 Jul 12].  Back to cited text no. 6
2021 Best Global Universities Ranking, U.S. News Report, U.S. News & World Report L.P. Available from: http://www.lvhn.org/about-us-awards-and-recognition/us-news-world-report. [Last Accessed on 2021 Jul 07].  Back to cited text no. 7


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