V-2. “The Making of ‘Traditional Medicine’ in the Modern History of Vietnam” (R3 FY2021)

  • Project Leader : Oda Nara (Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, World Language and Society Education Center)

Outline of Research

This study aims to elucidate the historical process in which traditional Vietnamese medicine was formed and penetrated Vietnamese society as an original medical system under the competing influences of Chinese and Western medicine during the 20th century. To this end, it comprehensively describes the structure and history of Vietnamese traditional medicine, tracing how several Vietnamese national powers during the colonial period, the division and unification period, and the period of socio-economic change have “institutionalized” traditional medicine and attempted to incorporate it into the national medical system. It also examines the knowledge and practices that were excluded from this “institutionalization.”


The purpose of publishing this study is to make the long history of traditional medicine in Vietnam widely available for the first time. Specifically, no such historical study exists that discusses the details of both North Vietnam (Democratic Republic of Vietnam) and South Vietnam (Republic of Vietnam) during the period of the north-south division under the Cold War.

Previous studies have explained that traditional Vietnamese medicine, along with the rise of nationalism, resulted from the rivalry between Western medicine, including that used by French colonial powers, and Chinese medicine. However, the situation is more complex. Traditional Vietnamese medicine, which has been incorporated into public medicine, includes both Chinese medicine (thuốc bác) and Vietnamese medicine (thuốc nam). Furthermore, it has been referred to as a variety of Vietnamese names, such as National Medicine (y học dân tôc) Eastern Medicine (đông y), and Traditional Medicine (y học dân tộc). Such complexity cannot be captured by conventional one-line descriptions.

Based on historical materials and interviews, this study clarifies how traditional Vietnamese medicine was established within the medical system, as well as the conceptual changes in traditional Vietnamese medicine throughout the French colonial period, the independence period after 1945 in the North, the period of the north-south division, and in modern Vietnam after the unification in 1976 and after Doi Moi in 1986. This study is novel in that it contrasts with the Vietnam’s official view, which states that “national tradition” has been maintained and protected despite the country’s long history of war and struggle. Additionally, the study surpasses the narrow definition of “medical history,” offering an alternative understanding of the history of Vietnam and thus contributing to the enrichment of Vietnam Area Studies. This book will contribute not only to regional comparisons, but also to the reconsideration of national intervention in medical care, which is being questioned globally, as well as to the debate around people’s trust in medical technology.

A private clinic specializing in traditional medicine in Ho Chi Minh City. The practicioner here trained himself while helping his father who was also a specialist for traditional medicine.

Students studying traditional medicine at Hue University of Medicine and Pharmacy. Many of them in the picture were not familiar with traditional medicine before entering the university.