Traditional Chinese Medicine’s Journey to the West
by Yosef Pollack, L.Ac.
Traditional Chinese medicine goes back at least 3,000 years but probably more. Legend has it that Emperor Shen Nong pioneered the use of herbs to treat illnesses. His nickname is “the divine cultivator” because of his use of herbal medicine and teaching agriculture to the people.
The first recorded use of herbal medicine comes from archaeological digs that found relics from the Shang Dynasty. This was somewhere around 1,000 B. C. They also found acupuncture needles and medical inscriptions on bones.
In the more recent era, a number of herbal doctors and practitioners have come along and helped codify the practice. One of the most famous was Bian Que, who lived around 501 B. C. He was famous for reviving a prince who everyone thought was dead. He approached the prince and, using traditional diagnostic techniques, found that the prince was in a coma. He revived him using acupuncture and the people of the kingdom thought he had raised the dead. Incidents such as this added to acupuncture and herbal medicine’s prominence amongst the Chinese.
Following the era of Bian Que, there has been a succession of famous herbal doctors up to the present. There have also been texts that taught practices which are still used today. One of the earliest of these is the “Inner Classic” (Huang Di Nei Jing). This is a dialog written between the Yellow Emperor and his minister Qui Bo on the subject of medicine. It contains the results of centuries of observation and practice, an influence of Taoism.
This text offers the first complete, detailed description of acupuncture and elaborates on the philosophy that guides the practice to this day. The central tenet of the Huangdi Neijing is the concept of Qi (pronounced ‘chee’), vital energy or life force flowing through our bodies via channels known as “meridians. When meridians are blocked, the Qi fails to flow properly, creating imbalances and resulting in disease.
Emperor Gaozong, of the Tang Dynasty, commissioned an encyclopedic written work documenting 833 medicinal substances taken from herbs, plants, stones, minerals, and other sources. In the 10th century, the scholar So Song produced the Bencao Tujing, or “Illustrated Pharmacopoeia,” categorizing herbs and minerals according to their pharmaceutical properties. These ancient teachings spread quickly to Japan and the Islamic world.
Traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture was first noticed in the European world by Dutch physicians in the 17th century. TCM had a huge influence on Swedish massage practices developed during that era. However, it hasn’t been until recent years that TCM has made inroads into the west.
During the first half the 20th century, western medicine flooded into China. Especially in urban areas, western medicine replaced many of the old ways. However, in the second half of the 20th century, there’s been a major reverse in this trend as TCM has finally come to the west. As more and more medical professionals have learned the benefits of TCM, and as its practices have started to become validated by scientific research, it’s gradually catching on throughout Europe and the United States.
Major Differences between TCM and Western Medicine
There is a world of difference between the Chinese and western approaches to diagnosis and treatment. In the west, we use tests and analyze the results. Complex machinery records this data and tells us what is wrong with the patient. The Chinese approach looks instead at energy balances and the whole body’s organism. You might say that western medicine takes the “Micro” Analytic approach, while the Chinese style is “Macro” Holistic.
The key to diagnosis in Chinese medicine is observation. The doctor looks for outward signs and symptoms that indicate something is wrong. They will listen closely for sounds, for smells, color, and inspect other signs. A significant diagnostic tool for the Chinese practitioner is the pulse. They take the patient’s pulse in a variety of different positions to find out what’s wrong. Like western doctors, they will also ask the patient and the patient’s relatives about their medical history and symptoms.
Herbal & Food Therapies in Chinese Medicine
While the western approach treats illnesses by prescribing chemicals, the usual treatment in Chinese medicine is either herbal remedies or specific dietary changes. Herbs must be prepared and ingested in a certain way, although patent formulas in pill form are very effective. The goal is to restore the body’s balance, inferring 'self regulation'.
Western science has developed its methods in the last hundred years. But, only in the last half of the 20th century have they begun to validate what Chinese practitioners have known for thousands of years. Now it is taking western countries by storm.
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