The Foundations of Chinese Medicine


Giovanni Maciocia

Date Published

October 23, 2009



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Han dynasty, 154 BC, North China. A peasant works in the millet fields in springtime. A bitterlycold North wind is blowing. In the afternoon after work, she has an itchy throat, a runny nose, a cough and a severe stiff neck and headache. She visits the local acupuncturist who diagnoses an invasion of exterior Wind-Cold. The acupuncturist inserts a few needles in the peasant's hands and applies cupping to two points in the upper back, which produces a marked improvement after a few hours.
AD 1988, London, England. A fund manager from the City of London suffers from anxiety and insomnia. He works long hours and under considerable pressure as he is responsible for themanagement of several million-pound funds. A colleague at work had tried acupuncture to stopsmoking and recommends him to his acupuncturist who diagnoses a case of Liver-Qi stagnationfrom the pressure of work. He inserts a few needles to remove the stagnation of Liver-Qi and calm the mind. After a few weekly treatments there is a considerable improvement.
Such is the awesome power of Chinese medicine that, even if it originated thousands of years ago and came to maturity a few hundred years before Christ, it can successfully diagnose and treat twentieth century health problems generated by a life-style which is light-years away from that of the ancient peasant society from which Chinese medicine originated.
Much is made of the cultural difference between the Chinese and Western societies. Of course, Chinese medicine arose out of China and therefore bears the cultural imprint of that society. Moreover, the way the theory of Chinese medicine is taught in modern China obviously reflects a materialistic approach. For example, the concept of Shen (the mental aspect of the Heart) is accepted, but not that of Hun or Po (the spiritual aspects of the Liver and Lungs). However, each society gives a particular imprint to the medicine they inherit. For example, Chinese herbal medicine during the Warring states period was mostly influenced by Daoist philosophy, whereas during the Han dynasty it was influenced by the Confucian and Legalist philosophies. During the Song dynasty, it was heavily influenced by the Neo-Confucian philosophy of the School of Principle (Li). Although the modern Chinese, with their materialistic philosophical orientation, have ignored or glossed over certain aspects of Chinese medicine, credit must be given to them for carrying out a useful and important sytematization of the theory of Chinese medicine. Moreover, we should not think that everything contained in the old classics is a pearl of wisdom. Even the greatest Chinese doctors such as Li Shi Zhen or Sun Si Miao clung to old superstitious beliefs and used some bizarre substances in their clinical practice. For example, Li Shi Zhen included the rope of a suicide victim as a medicinal "drug". 1 I feel we should be grateful for the work of modern Chinese doctors and teachers in sifting out such worthless aspects from the old classics.