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Model ear showing acupuncture points, China or Japan, 1970-1985

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According to Chinese medicine, the body contains many meridians – channels through which energy (qi) travels. It is blockages in the flow of qi which are thought to lead to illness. By inserting acupuncture needles at specific meridian points the qi might become unblocked and the illness alleviated. Those who practice Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are familiar with anatomical models marked with these key points. So why might this ear come as a surprise a Chinese practitioner? In fact, until the late 20th century, a Chinese doctor may not have recognised this object at all. Ear acupuncture was developed not in China, but in 1950s France, by Dr Paul Nogier. He argued that the ear looked a bit like curled up body, and that points on the ear could correspond the same points on the body. Nogier seems to have developed his theory through borrowing ideas from TCM, folk medicine and biomedicine. The idea of mapping the whole body onto one body part was prevalent for a time in Europe, but eventually rejected by biomedicine. Ear acupuncture was introduced into medical practice in China in 1958. It was extensively researched, and by the 1980s was being used inside government hospitals and private practices. What can this object tell us about medical practice in contemporary China? It suggests that Chinese medicine is not a static tradition, but one still being developed through incorporating ideas from many different countries and medical systems.

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    Glossary: ear

    The organ of hearing; the external ear

    Glossary: acupuncture

    A central therapy in Traditional Chinese Medicine, where fine needles are inserted into the skin at specific points. These points are believed by to lie on channels, or meridians, of energy flow, or qi (chi).

    Glossary: Traditional Chinese Medicine

    Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a medical tradition originating in China, but now used worldwide. Treatments include herbal medicine, massage and acupuncture, which are combined to create a therapy tailored to the patient.

    Glossary: biomedicine

    The name given to the medical practice that is based on the sciences of the body, such as physiology (the functioning of the body).

    Glossary: meridians

    The main channels of energy flow (qi) in Chinese medicine. There are 12 meridians in total.