What Is Chinese Medicine?

Traditional Chinese Medicine refers to the 2,400 year old medical practices indigenous to China. Made up of four major branches – acupuncture, herbology, bodywork, and health benefiting exercises–it is a blend of medicine from India that arrived with Buddhism, the Middle East via the Silk Route and Daoism, China’s own philosophy of harmony and balance. Basing its theories of illness and treatment on climactic factors, dietary habits, and lifestyle instead of the influences of gods, spirits and omens, it is one the few theory-based traditional medical systems to produce thousands of writings documenting its practices and remaining in continuous use since 500 BCE.

As a result, the influence of Chinese medicine over the last two and a half millennia has been so great that every indigenous medical tradition in Asia draws its knowledge either completely or in part from China’s traditional medicine. Sadly, the West’s understanding of this living knowledge is from post Communist, not traditional, Chinese medicine. Teachers and curriculum are brought over from schools in China based on the post 1949 politically correct model of Chinese medicine. Unaware of the dramatic changes that have happened over the last 50 years, the West is not drawing from the last of the traditional practitioners left in China. For Chinese medicine to truly demonstrate its efficacy as it becomes accepted in the West, it is vital this aging generation is documented so their knowledge and experience helps shape integrative healthcare today and continues to educate the Chinese medical practitioners of tomorrow.

The overview below provides brief descriptions of each of the four branches of traditional Chinese medicine and is to be used as a reference guide for understanding the Association for Traditional Studies’ work in China.

Acupuncture:

The most widely known of the four major branches of Chinese medicine in the West is acupuncture. Originally practiced by pressing objects into sensitive spots on the body, it quickly developed into the insertion of needles on what are today known as acupuncture points. Observing both the psychological and physiological responses to this stimulation, Chinese medicine developed an incredibly detailed map of these points of influence on the landscape of the body and their effects on a person’s physical and mental well being. Blending this empirical knowledge with the theoretical base of returning the body to homeostasis as the ideal state of balance and health, acupuncture became one of the most important tools of the traditional Chinese medical practitioner. Today, acupuncture is the most widely used alternative treatment method in the growing field of complimentary health care in the West. In the United States alone, there are 46 nationally accredited schools of Chinese medicine, granting a Masters of Science in Oriental Medicine.

Herbology:

Within China itself, however, herbal knowledge has long been the most dominant branch of Chinese medicine. Using both indigenous herbs and those brought by traders and merchants from all over the Asian continent, its theories and uses comprise the greatest portion of Chinese medical publications throughout the ages. One of the earliest books, known in English as The Yellow Emperor’s Classic on Internal Medicine, advises the practitioner to use herbs as a general would use soldiers in battle. One must employ strategies and tactics that make use of individual herbs and their synergistic effects when combined together to dislodge the illness and return the body to balance. The focus of each treatment is holistic: it takes into account the strength and nature of the pathogen; the age and sex of the patient; and the constitutional fragility or robustness of the patient.

Bodywork:

Of the four branches of Chinese medicine, bodywork is the oldest and arguably the most influential. Beginning with the instinctive actions of a mother rubbing a child’s belly because of a stomach ache or a concerned son patting an aging father’s back to calm a coughing spasm, the use of hands to help the sick has been the first tool of every medical system on the planet. Enriched by Chinese medical theory, bodywork reached its highest point in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). At that time it was taught within the Imperial Medical School, and practitioners were granted degrees and titles ranging from a simple body-worker to what today would be the equivalent of a Ph.D. in medically focused massotherapy. It spread east to Japan and Korea; south to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia; north to Mongolia; and west to Europe via Russia. The massage techniques made famous in Northern Europe and Russia all originated in China, traveling first with the traders and caravans and then later with conquering armies of Genghis Khan and the Hun empire.

Health Benefiting Exercises:

Often seen more as folk practices rather than medicine, China’s health benefiting exercises also share an incredibly long and influential history. While poorly understood today as a branch of Chinese medicine, all of Chinese medicine’s most influential writers spoke of the importance of the patient him or herself maintaining health through daily exercise. These were not exercises such as jogging or aerobics as understood by Westerners today, but practices built upon the Chinese medical theory of balance: of harmonizing what was called the Blood, or cardiovascular system; the Qi, or respiratory system; and the Spirit, or nervous system. Placing equal emphasis on the importance of exercising the Blood, Qi and Spirit within the context of the Chinese medical view of the body-mind connection, China’s health benefiting exercises were used to both prevent illnesses when healthy, and recover more quickly when ill.