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Tibetan Medicine in Exile: The ethics, politics and science of cultural survival


This dissertation combines ethnography, history and critical analysis to produce the first comprehensive account of Tibetan medicine in exile to date. Beginning with exile-Tibetan medicine's fundamental claim, it asks how its practitioners and institutions strive to simultaneously "preserve Tibetan culture" and "help the world". I argue that Tibetan medicine "preserves" Tibetan culture and produces a modern Tibetan nation by instantiating, materializing and validating Tibetan Buddhist ethics - and thus Tibetan culture and nation - in its medical knowledge, its institutions, doctors, pills, and efficacy. At the same time, it claims to "help the world" not only by transforming itself into a globally recognized (and recognizable) system of alternative medicine providing herbal pills to an international community of patients, but also by producing an alternative, uniquely Tibetan modernity that addresses the perceived shortcomings and desires of Western modernity.

The dissertation is organized in seven chapters including the introduction. After outlining the analytic framework and introducing the subject matter in the introduction, the chapters proceed from the historical background of Tibetan medicine in exile to the ways traditional connections between ethics, politics and money have been (and are) renegotiated since the 1960s, to the transformation of exile-Tibetan medicine into a medical system and efforts to achieve legal recognition, to finally Tibetan medicine's engagement with modern science.

Through providing an in-depth ethnography of how the Men-Tsee-Khang, Tibetan medicine's first and most important institution in exile, engages and redefines modernity, this dissertation explores how ethics, politics and the capitalist market come together in the production of pills, a "traditional medical system," cultural identity and a nation in the transnational context of exile. This dissertation thus speaks to a number of audiences, beginning with the practitioners of Tibetan medicines themselves, to Tibet scholars and scholars of Asian medicine, to medical anthropologists interested in processes of medical standardization, the production of medical systems and the pharmaceuticalization of medicine, to socio-cultural anthropologists and political theorists engaging with contemporary reconfigurations of cultural identity, ethical subjectivities, the capitalist market and the nation.

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