AAS Member Spotlight: James Flowers

James Flowers is a doctoral candidate in the history of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Your discipline and country (or countries) of interest

I call myself a historian of East Asia, with a focus on Korea.

How long have you been a member of AAS?

I joined AAS in 2016.

Why did you join AAS and why would you recommend AAS to your colleagues?

I am a graduate student. I presented at the AAS Annual Conference in Seattle in 2016. I fell in love with AAS, so I kept up my membership since. I was thrilled to be among so many interesting scholars of Asia. It was my first attendance and I was also astounded by the warm welcome and response I received from many established scholars.

Then in 2018, I was lucky to be selected to participate in the AAS dissertation workshop on Science and Medicine in Washington, D.C. I was stunned by how much I enjoyed the three days of activities with faculty and other graduate students. It sounds clichéd but we really did bond by forming close relationships based on intellectual collaboration and genuine friendship. I then vowed to always be a part of the AAS community.

How did you first become involved in the field of Asian Studies?

I wanted to be a scholar of Asia since I was aged twelve. However, I came to Asian Studies via a circuitous route. I first studied clinical Chinese medicine with the aim of understanding of how historical thought processes such as yin yang, qi and so on, worked in practice. After years of clinical practice, administration, and teaching, I decided to become a historian of medicine in Asia. I started as a historian of Chinese medicine but then came to think that it did not make sense unless examining it in the context of Asia as a whole. Thus, I broadened to an East Asian lens, meaning also learning Korean and Japanese.

What do you enjoy most or what have been your most rewarding experiences involving your work in Asian Studies?

I enjoy everything about Asian studies. It is all fascinating. If I had to single anything out, I would say it is being part of a great community. I learn so much from like-minded colleagues. When I say community, I include undergraduate students, since I enjoy teaching, but also learning from many bright and motivated students.

Tell us about your current or past research.

I am writing my dissertation on the history of medicine in colonial-period Korea, 1910-1945. That time period reveals a complex interplay of cultural and political forces that gave rise to an unusual form of colonial medicine in Korea. I argue that the particular circumstances of that period in Korea led to an unusual form of modernity in East Asia that integrates elements of older cultural practices with new scientific ideas. Furthermore, Korean insistence on consolidation of older cultural resources such as medicine gradually influenced and shaped Japanese conceptions of modernity. Specifically, I focus on traditional medicine physicians and shamans in Korea. With the introduction of Western medicine, the Korean healers and Korean people in general insisted on continuing to use and to strengthen their traditional healing practices, such as herbal medicine, lifestyle preventive medicine, and religious ritual. The Korean defiance of attempts to marginalize their medicine manifested as a key area of resistance to Japanese colonial rule. Gradually, the Japanese colonial rulers, due to multiple factors, came to also embrace traditional medicine as though it was their own.

What advice or recommendation do you have for students interested in a career in Asian Studies?

Cross disciplines and cross national borders. More importantly, however, be grateful to the actors whom we study. We owe them a debt, since they have given us so much rich intellectual material. The accepted view in many universities is that Asian studies are somehow marginal or quirky. We are lucky in that we have the opportunity to turn that apparent disadvantage into strength. There are few things of more urgency for the world than knowing, understanding, and reshaping many misconceptions about Asia.

Outside of Asian Studies, tell us some interesting facts about yourself.

Related to Asian studies, I am passionate in my belief that Asian medicines need to be more understood and then integrated into healthcare systems. This belief is not based on a nationalist desire to valorize Asian knowledge systems, but rather on the idea that Asian medical systems can provide significant benefits to people’s health. I feel lucky because my wife and I are East Asian medicine physicians, meaning that our lifestyle is built on many preventive medicine principles. My Chinese medicine knowledge has deeply informed my academic research, and vice-versa.