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Chinese Medicine


Traditional Chinese Medicine

Today, medical care in China often consists of a mixture of both Western and traditional Chinese medicine although Western-style medicine tends to be dominant. Large public hospitals in cities across the country offer both of these approaches to medical treatment. The Chinese will usually visit a doctor trained in Western medicine if they feel that they are seriously ill and need to be treated quickly. If the problem is not too serious or urgent, the patient will most likely see a traditional doctor who can better restore harmony to the body.

Historical Roots

Traditional Chinese medicine, as practiced today and in past centuries, is based upon an array of theories and practices from both foreign and native sources. The history of Chinese medicine is said to go back as far as 5,000 years to the time of Shennong, a divine husbandman credited with the discovery of medicinal herbs.

According to Chinese legend, Shen Nung, the Chinese father of agriculture and leader of an ancient clan, took it upon himself to test, one by one, hundreds of different plants to discover their nutritional and medicinal properties. Many of these turned out to be poisonous to humans. Over the millennia, Chinese have used themselves as guinea pigs in this same way to continue testing plants for their properties of inducing cold(han), heat(jeh), warmth(wen), and coolness(liang). They classified the medicinal effects of the plants on the various parts of the body, then tested them to determine their toxicity, what dosages would be lethal and so forth.

Historical writer Liu Shu reported that " Shennong tasted hundreds of herbs himself; at times, as many as 70 poisonous herbs in one day”. The validity of that statement is surely one to be debated but Shennong Bencaojing (Shennong's Classic on material Medical) describes the medicinal effects of some 365 herbs and is the earliest known text of its kind. Another early text, which continues to be a cornerstone in the Chinese medical canon, is Huang Dineijing (The Yellow Emperor's Canon of Interior Medicine). While authorship is unknown, its present-day version is believed to have been compiled between second century BC and eighth century AD and later revised during the Song Dynasty (960 -1279). Over the centuries, volumes upon volumes of commentary have been written about this ancient text. Its influence remains important as the main principles of Chinese medicine are still based on theories first set forth by it.

The stem of Chinese ephedra is a sudorific but its roots, to the contrary, can check perspiration. Cassia bark is warming in nature and is useful in treating colds. Mint is cooling in nature and is used to relieve the symptoms of illness resulting from heat factors. This accumulation of experience strengthened the Chinese understanding of natural phenomena and increased the applications of natural principles in Chinese medicine. The same principles described in the preceding are also applied to assess the patient's living environment, his life rhythms, the foods he prefers or avoids, his personal relationships and his language and gestures as a tool in better understanding his illness and suggesting improvements in various areas. Once the excesses or imbalances are pinpointed, they can be adjusted and physical and mental health and balance restored. This attainment of equilibrium in the body's flow of energy is the ultimate guiding principle of Chinese medical treatment.

The theoretical framework of Chinese medicine was established more than two millennia ago. A great deal of ancient medical knowledge is preserved in the pre-Qin (221-207 BC) Inner Cannon (Nei Jing), a comprehensive record of Chinese medical theories up to that time. The Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) produced an authoritative and valuable practical guide--even to present day--to the treatment of illness, the Treatise on Diseases Caused by Cold Factors (Shang Han Lun) by Zhang Chunjing.

One of the best-known Chinese medical works is the Materia Medica(Beng Cao Gang Mu), compiled in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) by Li Shizhen. This encyclopedic work heralded a new era in the world history of pharmacology. It includes descriptions of 1,892 different kinds of medicines. These works have all been translated into several foreign languages and have exercised a profound influence on East Asian and European countries

The Chinese have a unique system of categorizing illnesses that is widely divergent from its Western counterpart. The philosophy behind Chinese medicine is that man lives between heaven and earth and comprises a miniature universe in himself. The material of which living things are made is considered to belong to the "yin" or female, passive, receding aspect of nature. The life functions of living things, on the other hand, are considered to belong to the "yang" or masculine, active, advancing aspect. The functions of living beings are described in terms of the following five centers of the body:

  • (1)"heart" or "mind" (xin)-- this refers to the "command center" of the body which manifests itself as consciousness and intelligence
  • (2) "lungs" or "respiratory system" (fei)--this system regulates various intrinsic functions of the body and maintains cybernetic balance
  • (3) "liver" (gan)--this term includes the limbs and trunk, the mechanism for emotional response to the external environment and the action of organs
  • (4) "spleen" (pi)--this organ system regulates the distribution of nutrition throughout the body and the metabolism, bringing strength and vigor to the physical body and
  • (5) "kidneys" (shen)--this refers to the system for regulating the storage of nutrition and the use of energy; the human life force depends on this system. This theory is used to describe the system of body functions and as a whole is referred to as the "latent phenomena".

Several main concepts are essential to understanding traditional Chinese medicine. Holism, or the concept that parts of a human body form an integral, connected, and inseparable whole, is one of the main distinguishing features of traditional Chinese medicine. Whereas Western medicine tends to treat symptoms in a direct fashion, traditional Chinese medicine examines illnesses in the context of a whole.

The passage of the seasons and changes in the weather can have an influence on the human body. Those having the most pronounced effect are wind (feng), cold (han), heat (shu), moisture (shih), dryness (tsao), and internal heat (huo "fire"). Excessive or extraordinary changes in the weather harm the body and are referred to as the "six external disease-causing factors" (liu yin). On the other hand, if mood changes within the individual, such as happiness(hsi), anger(nu), worry(yu), pensiveness(szu), grief(pei), fear(k'ung) and surprise(ching) are too extreme, they will also harm the health. These emotions are called the "seven emotions"(ch'i ch'ing). In Chinese medicine, the six external disease-causing factors interacting with the seven emotions form the theoretical foundation of disease pathology. These theoretical models, coupled with the "theory of latent phenomena," , are used to analyze the patient's constitution and his illness and diagnose the exact nature of his overall physical and psychological loss of balance. Based on this analysis, the doctor can prescribe a method to correct the imbalance. The object of Chinese medicine is the person, not just the illness. In Chinese medical thinking, illness is only one manifestation of an imbalance that exists in the entire person.

Yin-yang philosophy and the theory of five elements form a system of categories that explain the complete relationships between parts of the body and the environment. Yin and yang represent two opposite sides in nature such as hot and cold or light and dark. Each of the different organs is said to have yin or yang characteristics. Balance between the two is vital for maintaining health. The five elements--earth, fire, water, metal and wood-are categories of characteristics into which all known phenomena can be classified. For example, just as water subdues fire, phenomena associated with water are said to control those classified under fire.

Visiting the most famous Chinese pharmacy, the legendary Tongrentang is much like being inside a miniature museum of natural science. Tucked away in row after row of tidy drawers are animal, plant and mineral products, each with a particular purpose. Among the assortment of curiosities is amber--to relax the nerves; peach pits and safflower to improve blood circulation; Chinese ephedra (mahuang) to induce perspiration; and ginseng to strengthen cardiac function.

The filling of a prescription ordered by a Chinese doctor is a fascinating process to watch. The pharmacist selects a few particular ingredients from the hundreds on his shelf. These are taken home by the patient, boiled into a "soup" and drunk. Confronted with such a steaming brew, you might ask yourself just what the basis of this ancient medical art is.

A traditional Chinese pharmacy has a unique smell made up of thousands of scents emanating from jars and cabinets stocked full of dried plants, seeds, animal parts and minerals. Among them are the well-known ginseng roots, dried or immersed in alcohol and often looking like a human figure. In fact, the Chinese word for ginseng contains the character ren, which means person.

Tongrentang Pharmacy

Located in an old part of Beijing, south of Tian'anmen Square, in business for over 300 years, this pharmacy was once a royal dispensary during the Qing Dynasty and still produces all the pills and secret concoctions once used by royalty. The enormous size of this pharmacy is overwhelming, as is the selection of remedies--small and large eggs, snakes coiled in spirals, dried monkeys, toads, tortoises, centipedes, grasshoppers, small fish, stag antlers, rhinoceros horns and testicles. And then there are the thousand kinds of dried and preserved herbs, blossoms, roots, berries and fruits.


In addition to the prescription of medicines, acupuncture is another frequently used tool of treatment in Chinese medicine. Its history antedates written Chinese language, but acupuncture was not fully developed until after the Han Dynasty. Its theoretical base is the adjustment of c'hi, or the flow of life energy. C'hi flows through the body via the system of "main and collateral channels"(ching luo) of the body. At certain points along these channels, acupuncture needles may be inserted or Chinese mugwort(ai ts'ao) burned in moxibustion, to adjust imbalances in the flow of c'hi and concentrate the body's self-healing powers in the points where needed. In 1980, the World Health Organization released a list of 43 types of pathologies which can be effectively treated with acupuncture. The use of acupuncture as anesthesia during surgery or for painless childbirth is no longer "news." Acupuncture is simple to administer, has few side effects and has broad applications. It has opened up a whole new "hot" field of scientific and medical research.

The increasing popularity of acupuncture outside of China has made it nearly synonymous for many Westerns with all traditional Chinese medicine. Not meant as a cure for everything, acupuncture has nonetheless enjoyed renewed interest in recent decades and is especially effective in controlling pain.

The practice of acupuncture is based on a theory of channels or meridians by which " influences" flow through the body. The flow of positive influences through the body is maintaining health. Unhealthy symptoms are in fact, manifestations of improper qi. The Huang Dineijing describes 365 sensitive points used in acupuncture, in addition to 12 main conduits in the human body. Executed properly, acupuncture should be relatively painless.

There is also a system of ear acupuncture, performed withou needles. Small, round seed kernels are stuck onto certain points of the ear and massaged by the patient every so often. This method is not only very successful in the treatment of pain, but is also said to relieve some allergies such as hay fever.

An acupuncture clinic often smells similar to a pharmacy. This is the typical smell of the moxa herb, or mugwort. It is considered especially helpful in the treatment of illnesses that, in Chinese medical terminology, are classified as a cold"; for example, stomach and digestive complaints without fever, certain rheumatic illnesses, chronic pains in the back and cramped shoulders and neck. The mugwort is formed into small cones and placed on slices of fresh ginger, then it is allowed to grow slowly. The plant is then placed onto the acupuncture point.

Chinese Qigong

On any early morning in China, millions of people, most of the old, gather in parks to exercise. There are several types of traditional exercise that are regarded not only as ways to take care of one's body, but also as therapy.

The most common type of exercise is taijiquan, the so-called shadow boxing. Another, perhaps less familiar to Westerners, is qigong, which is often translated as breathing therapy. The two main types of qigong are separated into" hard" and " soft". Soft qigong is more of a meditative type, mostly breathing exercises and fairly simple non-stressful movements. Hard qigong on the other hand, is more intense and is practiced to cultivate great strength, serious stamina and almost super-human abilities (supposedly).

A basic tenet of soft qigong is the concept of "holding the ball". This is a simple position which is seen in many different forms of qigong. The basic idea is that you picture a ball in front of you and you place your hands on either side of the ball so that you are holding it up.

The aim is to create a circuit of qi. Energy circulates throughout your body and by creating this circuit with your arms you can exercise the flow ball for a while your hands start to get warm. If you are doing it correctly, after a little while you should feel like the ball is expanding and contracting. You then move your hands farther apart, back in, then out again.

By going through the movements over and over, you condition your body while, at the same time, relaxing your mind. This, combined with movements specially formulated to increase qi flow (including lots of ball-holding), creates a veritable qi feast in your system.

Today, an estimated 70 million people in China practice qigong on a daily basis. The continued popularity of qigong represents a healthy interest in exercise.


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