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A Q&A with Expert Hugh Shapiro

By | April 5, 2014
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During his lifetime of war, the Great Qin Emperor made many enemies. His subterranean army of terra cotta warriors discovered by farmers in 1974 is but one aspect of his stunning attempt to sustain himself in the afterlife. The science and technology that enabled the construction of this archeological treasure was based on techniques perfected during centuries of warfare and empire building. At the site one gains an immediate sense of the Warring States science that enabled China's first unification, setting the subcontinent of China on a different trajectory than the Europe of competing nation states. The quality, durability, and vast number of terra cotta warriors, horses, chariots, weapons, and daily life items was made possible by a gamut of stunningly precocious industrial techniques, such as the blast furnace, cast iron, and above all, the unsung hero of ancient China, the double acting piston bellows.

The terra cotta army continues to yield remarkable insights into the social life of Qin China, including self-fashioning, diet, clothing, ethnicity, notions of afterlife, crime and punishment, infrastructure, and insight into military affairs, including strategy, projectile and steel weapons, poison gas, and siege craft. One can turn to the The Records of the Grand Historian (written by SiMa Qian, China's Herodotus, who interviewed people alive during Emperor Qin's reign) to glimpse inside the Emperor Qin's tomb, yet to be excavated. Recent chemical analysis of the soil surrounding the tomb suggests the accuracy of many of SiMa Qian's statements.

Q: How are the pandas at the preserve in Chengdu doing these days? Is the preserve breeding program making the hoped-for difference in the overall population of this endangered species?

A: The pandas are thriving. Frankly I was blown away by what I witnessed there. The biologists running the place are on the cutting edge and are doing paradigm-shifting work, work that is supported both by the Chinese government and by international organizations, such as the WWF. The panda was on the cusp of extinction, due to encroachment by humans and the erosion of panda habitat. Yet the species itself harbors a few evolutionary challenges. For example, pandas are carnivores but behave like herbivores. They maintain a 100 percent vegetarian diet, and thus must consume large amounts of bamboo leaves to compensate for the relatively low nutritional density of the plant vs. meat. Pandas also have relatively long cycles of fertility, slowing down the reproductive process. But the pandas at the Chengdu reserve are doing wonderfully. Recalling my visit there puts me in a good mood.

Q: We will visit local families in Beijing and Lhasa. What similarities and what differences can we anticipate?

A: What these families will have in common is a profound sense of hospitality. My best memories are of the times spent in people's homes. I have learned more sitting around the dinner tables of friends than almost anywhere else. It's these times, these discussions that made me feel an 'expert,' even after years of formal training. In my experience, people are incredibly open and are willing to discuss almost any topic. Public places have an important social function. The market, restaurants, parks, and public transportation are all places where people meet, bump into strangers, exchange ideas; some of my deepest conversations with people have been on the bus. But the home is distinct: people share and they also wish to know your opinion, your point of view. What strikes me about families in both Beijing and Lhasa is the lived sense of history. People not only have deep historical consciousness, they sometimes see themselves as caretakers of memory, much as professional historians might think. The principal difference in these two places is in how the culture of the other is regarded.

There's a saying in both Chinese and Tibetan: "When at home, depend on family; when out in the world, depend on friends." What people often forget is that the opening line of the Confucian classic, the Analects, easily the most influential text in the long history of East Asia, quotes the Master Confucius: "What greater delight than to welcome friends from afar?"

Q: Perhaps the most well-known form of Chinese medicine in the West is acupuncture. Is acupuncture used throughout China or only in certain regions? And what part does it play in the pantheon of traditional Chinese medicine?

A: After years of testing, the AMA (American Medical Association) now acknowledges acupuncture as a legitimate therapy. Acupuncture is widely practiced in China, and is an efficacious treatment for controlling pain. And acupuncture is but part of a pantheon of therapies to treat disruptions of vitality inside the body. Examples include moxibustion and cupping, to extract toxins, gua-sha, to scrape toxins from the skin's surface, and of course, the widely practiced pharmacology. Massage is another expression of these therapies, and foot massage in particular is now wildly popular. When friends from Japan visiting Beijing suggested that we all get foot massages, I thought it sounded tedious. I was mistaken.

Medicine in China has in fact become a global medicine, soon perhaps as ubiquitous as biomedicine. Inside China, patients tend to be agnostic, consulting different medical systems depending on the ailment and on the results. Medicine is also a big business in China and entrepreneurs creatively find ways to repackage traditional treatments into fashionable products for China's dynamic, hip urbanites.

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Dr. Hugh Shapiro

Hugh Shapiro is a professor of Chinese history and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Nevada. He earned his B.A. and M.A. from Stanford University and his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He has enjoyed visiting appointments at Princeton University, the Institute for Advanced Study, and universities in Japan, Taiwan, and China. His extensive archival and fieldwork in East Asia regards the history of the body. He co-edited Medicine Across Cultures: History and Practice of Medicine in Non-Western Culture, and is experimenting with different media to present research. He received the Li-Qing Prize for the History of Chinese Science and won his university’'s highest teaching award. Hugh has studied or worked in China regularly since 1978.

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