In previous writing published elsewhere, I have considered how medicine is portrayed in Japanese manga. In many of those works medicine as an institution is presented as the problem and the heroes of the works are often brilliant renegades who force spotlights onto corruption and professional inertia. In this piece, I wished to contrast that presentation with the role medicine plays in the expanding world of Chinese comics or manhua.
Unlike medically themed Japanese works where the goal is very much to critique the status quo and authority in the majority of Chinese works, I have read medicine instead serves as an entry point into prestige and power. Many of these works fall into the common trend of a modern individual, in these cases, a highly trained doctor, transmigrating into the body of a mistreated and talentless scion of an elite family. Following their reincarnation our heroes often find themselves building favor and often ultimately joining the royalty of their new home. While most manhua adopts a historical theme, medicine serves the same role in series set in the modern era as well. In those works, set in more contemporary settings medical skills serve as a mechanism to counter the power of the fuerdai or second-generation rich who use their parent’s wealth and connections to manipulate institutions, avoid punishment, and savagely treat those of lower SES.
Beyond their different presentations of medicines, the role is the contrast in the type of medicine being practiced. In Japanese works stemming back to early works like Black Jack, the protagonists of medical manga practice at the edges of allopathic medicine often in the surgical field. Chinese works, in contrast, focus on the ability of traditional Chinese medical techniques to match and often outperform allopathic strategies. The reasoning for this is quite clear in a censorship environment like modern China. As noted in Nature the Chinese leadership “has been forcefully promoting traditional Chinese medicines (TCMs) as an alternative to expensive Western drugs.” A key part of this effort as noted in the same Nature article has been the fact that “Chinese censors have been quick to remove posts from the Internet that question its efficacy.”
A consideration of Chinese and Japanese medical comics represents an interesting consideration of the national priorities of their respective nations. From Japan, we can see decades long emphasis on not allowing hierarchy to prevent constant striving for the heights of allopathic medical capability while maintaining compassion. Chinese works are to a much greater extent shaped by broader modern society through their criticism of the nouveau riche while also being bound by the strong governmental emphasis on TCM.