The ancient wisdom of Traditional Chinese Medicine provides many answers to today’s questions. While China itself is moving fast, towards new techniques and technologies, the results of TCM are making it successful in North America and Europe. It would take several books just to provide an overview of TCM, so here we outline only its main points, which will be expanded with the following posts.
Traditional Chinese Medicine: A Basic Understanding
Traditional Chinese Medicine, also known as TCM, includes a range of traditional medical practices originating in China. Although well accepted in the mainstream of medical care throughout East Asia, it is considered an alternative medical system in much of the western world. Medical practitioners are trained in the diagnostic and healing techniques with centuries of tradition and philosophy. Like naturopathy, TCM is holistic. It considers all aspects of the person including physical, nutritional, emotional, mental and spiritual for diagnosis. TCM is based on the balance of opposing elements (the yin and yang) in the body, as well as their harmony with the environment around it. The two main forces of yin and yang combine to form the “qi” (pronounced as “chee”) or universal life force. When qi is in harmony, health is not only enhanced but also the capacity for fulfilment, happiness and well being. Disease and illness arise from imbalances of yin and yang that block the proper flow of qi. Therapies to treat disease are aimed at restoring the balance and unblocking the flow to restore health. TCM is primarily non-invasive. TCM treatments include the use of Chinese herbs, acupuncture, meditation, Chinese massage therapy, mental and physical disciplines such as Tai Chi and Qigong and nutritional therapy. Practitioners will attempt to realign the body’s balance using a combination of treatments before suggesting surgery by a Western Doctor. Most research into the effectiveness of TCM has been conducted on acupuncture. Although it has been difficult to conclusively prove the benefits of acupuncture, the results of large-scale studies are sufficiently convincing enough for FDA to consider the tradition “promising” and worthy of further study. In addition, it has been proven that many herbs used in Chinese medicine have therapeutic benefits. For instance, ginseng and Echinacea are both powerful herbs with strong medicinal actions. More recently, there has been some acknowledgement that Chinese massage therapies do help to manipulate muscles, nerves and tendons.
Traditional Chinese Medicine, an historic background Much of the philosophy of traditional Chinese medicine derives from the same philosophy that inform Taoist and Buddhist thought, and reflects the classical Chinese belief that the life and activity of individual human beings have an intimate relationship with the environment on all levels.
In legend, as a result of a dialogue with his minister Qibo, the Yellow Emperor (2698 – 2596 BCE) is supposed by Chinese tradition to have composed his Neijing: Suwen or Inner Canon: Basic Questions. The book Huangdi Neijing (Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon)’s title is often mistranslated as Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. Modern scholarly opinion holds that the extant text of this title was compiled by an anonymous scholar no earlier than the Han dynasty just over two-thousand years ago. Also another Chinese index book of herbs is “Ben Cao Gang Mu” written by Li Shi Zhen.
During the Han Dynasty (202 BC –220 AD), Zhang Zhongjing, the Hippocrates of China, who was mayor of Chang-sha toward the end of the 2nd century AD, wrote a Treatise on Cold Damage, which contains the earliest known reference to Neijing Suwen. Another prominent Eastern Han physician was Hua Tuo (c. 140 – c. 208 AD), who anesthetised patients during surgery with a formula of wine and powdered marijuana. Hua’s physical, surgical, and herbal treatments were also used to cure headaches, dizziness, internal worms, fevers, coughing, blocked throat, and even a diagnosis for one lady that she had a dead foetus within her that needed to be taken out. The Jin dynasty practitioner and advocate of acupuncture and moxibustion, Huang-fu Mi (215 – 282 AD), also quoted the Yellow Emperor in his Jia Yi Jing, ca. 265 AD. During the Tang dynasty, Wang Bing claimed to have located a copy of the originals of the Neijing Suwen, which he expanded and edited substantially. This work was revisited by an imperial commission during the 11th century AD.
There were noted advances in Chinese medicine during the Middle Ages. Emperor Gaozong (r. 649–683) of the Tang Dynasty (618–907) commissioned the scholarly compilation of a materia medica in 657 that documented 833 medicinal substances taken from stones, minerals, metals, plants, herbs, animals, vegetables, fruits, and cereal crops. In his Bencao Tujing (‘Illustrated Pharmacopoeia’), the scholar-official Su Song (1020–1101) not only systematically categorized herbs and minerals according to their pharmaceutical uses, but he also took an interest in zoology. For example, Su made systematic descriptions of animal species and the environmental regions they could be found, such as the freshwater crab Eriocher sinensis found in the Huai River running through Anhui, in waterways near the capital city, as well as reservoirs and marshes of Hebei.
Contact with Western culture and medicine has not displaced TCM. While there may be traditional factors involved in the persistent practice, two reasons are most obvious in the westward spread of TCM in recent decades. Firstly, TCM practices are believed by many to be very effective, sometimes offering palliative efficacy where the practices of Western medicine fail or unable to provide treatment, especially for routine ailments such as flu and allergies, or when Western medicine fails to relieve patients suffering from chronic ailments. TCM has been shown to be effective in the treatment of chronic, functional disorders, such as migraines and osteoarthritis, and is traditionally used for a wide range of functional disorders. Secondly, TCM provides an alternative to otherwise costly procedures whom many can not afford, or which is not covered by insurance. There are also many who turn to TCM to avoid the side effects of pharmaceuticals.
TCM of the last few centuries is seen by at least some sinologists as part of the evolution of a culture, from shamans blaming illnesses on evil spirits to “proto-scientific” systems of correspondence; any reference to supernatural forces is usually the result of romantic translations or poor understanding and will not be found in the Taoist-inspired classics of acupuncture such as the Huang Di Nei Jing. The system’s development has, over its history, been analysed both sceptically and extensively, and the practice and development of it has waxed and waned over the centuries and cultures through which it has travelled – yet the system has still survived thus far. It is true that the focus from the beginning has been on pragmatism, not necessarily understanding of the mechanisms of the actions – and that this has hindered its modern acceptance in the West. This, despite that there were times such as the early 18th century when “acupuncture and moxa were a matter of course in polite European society”
There are many criticisms of TCM as a form of healing, especially because some of the TCM beliefs have been mixed with Eastern mythology. However, aside from the criticisms, there is much merit in the philosophy of TCM. healing. If more research can be done into TCM, then the mythology can be separated from the facts and perhaps, more people will embrace TCM more readily as a form of healing.