Doctor Chen Tongyun

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Using Medicine to Benefit Society

An Interview with Dr. Chen Tongyun
Interview by Andrew Nugent-Head


Dr Chen TongyunI was born here in Beijing in 1922. My father was a doctor of Chinese medicine of some renown. Most people here knew of him, as he was not only a successful doctor, but also a well-educated, upstanding man. As a result, I grew up around Chinese medicine and helped my father in the clinic as a child. But I did not plan on becoming a doctor.

Like many children of my family background during that period here in the capitol, I attended Christian schools. This included attending a Catholic college. In college, I studied sociology, as my dream was to become a social worker and help my country's people.

In any society there will be those who need help, so I wanted to engage in benevolent works to save those who had fallen on difficulties and needed the support of their country.

When I graduated with my degree, however, China was undergoing an extremely tragic period of history. It was the time of Japanese occupation, a time of war and resistance. Beijing was occupied from 1937 until 1945 by the Japanese, which meant that we as Chinese were living under very unfair regulations and restrictions. Women were forbidden to work outside of the home, and even for Chinese men, finding a job and making a living was difficult then. Even if they could, it would be under the Japanese. There was a great deal of fear at what might happen with daughters who strayed too far from home at that time, so I returned from school to help my father in his clinic.

When it was time for me to marry, a marriage was arranged in the traditional Chinese fashion. One of the aspects of arranging a marriage is finding matching families, which means families of the same social stature, in the same businesses, and/or having close ties politically or economically.

The family that I married into was also a family of Chinese medicine practitioners, the father an even more famous doctor than mine. He specialized in dermatology. He and my father were good friends so a marriage between his son and myself was deemed auspicious. Thus, when I moved into my new family, I remained in the Chinese medical world and continued to practice and learn Chinese medicine under my husband and father-in-law's tutelage. It was an excellent path for me, as I was able to stay out of the troubled society at large, yet still actively help those in need within the safe confines of the family clinic. In that way, a sociology student became a doctor of Chinese medicine, and I have never looked back. After the Japanese were defeated, I continued practicing Chinese medicine, as I was living out my dreams. As a doctor, I was coming into contact with sick people from all walks of life, all levels of society. Particularly, though, I was able to help the poor, who are often in the greatest need of our help yet can least afford treatment and medicines. Our clinic began every morning by treating the first twenty of our morning fifty patients for free. We also gave them medicine to take away with them. Being a doctor is a great gift to society.

After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, private clinics were slowly phased out, and doctors like myself began to work in hospitals and state clinics. Before liberation, Chinese medicine was actually poorly viewed by the government. There was even a time period when China seriously contemplated outlawing Chinese medicine and only allowing Western medicine. But with liberation, the new government issued the statement that "Chinese medicine is a great and valuable storehouse of knowledge." This was very exciting for my generation of practitioners, as it meant that we were finally officially recognized as having value. Before we existed in an unfair situation in relation to Western medicine, but now we were on even ground.

To keep that even ground, however, we as doctors had to prove Chinese medicine's effectiveness and teachability. This was a great responsibility. A major part of that process was establishing universities dedicated to Chinese medicine. In China's past, there has never been a Chinese medicine university, a teaching center open to all. I was selected with a group of doctors to create the first Chinese medical university in China's history. We were given six months to organize the location, classrooms, teachers, curriculum and students. It was incredibly exciting to be a part of this, but daunting, as well. We worked day and night. We established the Institute for Chinese medicine and began teaching on September 6, 1956. Interestingly, the director of the university today is one of the members of our very first class. She was one of the students I recruited when we launched the university.

Of course, the school itself at that time was simple and spartan. Teaching texts were incomplete or poorly organized, but it was a work in progress that refined itself quickly as we all worked to ensure the students had the best teaching possible. Looking at it now, it is hard to believe that only took place forty-five years ago. Today, there are twenty some odd large universities of Chinese medicine throughout the country, the curriculum is very standardized, broad and encompassing, and entrance examinations are quite difficult. The systematizing of Chinese medical education was an extremely important step in bringing it up to an even level with Western medicine, as well as ensuring it not only survive, but flourish.

Our work as doctors to strengthen Chinese medicine is not done, though. While creating educational institutions was a big step, there is also another piece of work that must be done. The practical knowledge of the old doctors dispersed among the people must be recorded and organized. When knowledge makes it way into a book as theory, then it is dead. It can only reflect the situation it describes and nothing else. Learning in school through textbooks is not enough to prepare one to be a good doctor. It is the foundation, not the final product. Living Chinese medicine must be seen, and not just in the internships that students undergo in the hospitals. As the documentation of Chinese medicine in a teaching format is still young, there is so much clinical knowledge that has not been recorded but still exists in the hands of the old doctors practicing throughout China. There are bonesetters out there who have excellent hand techniques, herbalists who have figured out unique ways of using a particular herb, acupuncturists who have special needle techniques. It doesn't matter if the doctor only has one exceptional technique, it should be recorded. There are many such valuable bits of knowledge scattered throughout China in the fields of internal, external, female, and pediatric medicines. None of their knowledge can be found in books within the schools.

To this end, the Ministry of Health has developed a program that old doctors accept disciples already versed in Chinese medicine for two years. All of us who are over seventy and known about are carrying disciples as a part of the program. The disciples are to be with their doctors every day, learning and recording what they see. If one was to ask an old doctor about a theoretical case, he or she might not give you a unique answer. But if that case happens to walk into the clinic, the doctor might use a very unique and successful treatment method. The disciples have to be there all the time to catch those moments. I really view this work as emergency medicine for Chinese medicine. If we do not resuscitate this old knowledge that has been passed on for ages, then Chinese medicine will not grow strong again. This work must be done fast, though, as once the old doctors are gone, their knowledge will vanish forever. I hope that this program will continue and expand to all parts of China. I do not have control over that decision, though, so we must hope that the people in charge recognize how important it is. If this work is overlooked, the damage done to Chinese medicine will be great. It is not right to argue that the expense of documenting a doctor who perhaps only has one unique treatment is too great-that one treatment might save a person's life. This type of experience exists somewhat haphazardly, and there is no way to organize it into textbooks for students. But it must be documented so mature doctors can mull on their meaning and enrich the art of Chinese medicine. What appears in a textbook is dead, and what appears in a textbook must be the most common, standard treatments that fall within the theories of the medical system. But experience will contain the exceptions, the alternatives, the sparks that make a system grow beyond set patterns and beliefs. All of us old doctors have this knowledge buried within in us but don't even realize its value. By having disciples with us when we treat, when we eat, when we rest, someone will be there when we happen to spit it out. These are two parts to enriching Chinese medicine. Standardization of teaching and documenting clinical knowledge.

Another important factor for Chinese medicine to consider is science. There is no doubt that science is advancing our society at a rapid pace. With this pace, society is changing with science's discoveries every day. For Chinese medicine to stand on its own feet in today's world, it must also make new discoveries, new advances. It cannot stay within a framework created thousands of years ago. We must advance that traditional knowledge and create new theories that reflect the new knowledge that science has made available. Chinese medicine must work with scientists of many fields to further understand itself and the world it exists in to continue growing. For example, in my case, let us look at the issue of acne. It is a problem that exists everywhere, a problem that I have seen a great deal of. Let us say that I work from within the traditional recipes for acne to treat my patients. Then I know which herbs to prescribe internally, which herbs to use externally and my methods are already set for me. But I am doctor of today, so I also take the time to read how Western medicine views acne. Western medicine has found that there are bacteria at the core of each pimple. Do the traditional medicine prescriptions take that into account? No. But I have this information my ancestors did not, so I can read up on what herbs within Chinese medicine have an active ingredient that is antibacterial. This herb can be brought into my original treatments and my success rate will go up. This is an advancement of Chinese medicine. I often read medical research papers, as they can enrich my practice. My role as a doctor is to continually improve my medical abilities so that I have greater and greater success rates with the sick. It is not to blindly practice in a manner that does not take into account the most basic precept of any medical system: heal the patient, cure the illness. Chinese medicine should not be forced to remain static. It should continually grow, and in today's world, the area that can most enrich Chinese medicine is science. Scientific knowledge and understanding should be brought into Chinese medicine to strengthen its own theories and help root out those that are outmoded or incorrect. It is not that science should replace Chinese medicine. It is that Chinese medicine should incorporate it into itself to strengthen its vitality and spirit. In actuality, if one wants to respect the natural laws of nature, then Chinese medicine must either advance or decline. There is nothing static in nature. Chinese medicine was in a state of advancement for thousands of years, why should we not continue its progress in this time period, as well?

Chinese medicine should not fear science. If Chinese medicine really works, then science will see that. If I truly am able to diagnose something, science should be able to see what I see. Perhaps there is a problem in translation between the two languages, but as long as the diagnosis is real, both should be able to see it. If I say that this herb has a certain affect, then science should be able to document that. Perhaps science still doesn't know how to study Chinese medicine yet, but that does not mean we should not let it try. We need to encourage, not disparage efforts to calibrate the languages of Chinese medicine and science in the tangible realms of sickness and health. The problem with Chinese medicine now is the patient has whatever the doctor says. There is no way for the doctor to say here is the condition, and then for others to see tests which reflect that. The doctor can neither be supported in his declaration, nor challenged in his opinion with visible, scientific facts.

As you can see, for Chinese medicine to prove and advance itself is not an easy task. It must standardize its teaching, yet not lose its valuable knowledge that exists outside of the schoolbooks. It must scientize, yet not lose its valuable language. Nor is this a task that can be accomplished by a single generation of doctors. Chinese medicine must come into contact with interdisciplinary scientific research in order to understand and explain itself in a language that today's world speaks. If Chinese medicine is real, then it will be able to do so-of that there is no doubt. I, of course, believe Chinese medicine is real and has much to offer the world, so I encourage this exchange wholeheartedly. This is a great time period for this, as in 1996, the Ministry of Health declared that Chinese medicine is equally important as Western medicine. From this position inroads can be made into the government and programs can be put into place to further Chinese medicine along with Western medicine. Perhaps younger doctors cannot remember when Chinese medicine existed in a very unequal environment just decades ago. But now that we have been given a hard earned equality with Western medicine, it is up to Chinese medicine's doctors to prove its worth and advance its knowledge. I feel this responsibility quite keenly. It is not enough that we simply go to the clinic, treat our patients, and then come home. History has given the doctors of this time period a responsibility that should not be shirked. While I am but one doctor with little influence, I do everything I can to further Chinese medicine.

A good example of where Chinese medicine should be furthered is herbal medicine. Why should we remain in the method of boiling herbs into soup? It is difficult, time consuming, and bad tasting for patients. Do you really believe that herbs can only work if prepared that way, or do you accept that with research, methods of preparation and extraction can be found which makes herbal medicine easier for patients to take advantage of? We should find how to make it more convenient. I have a patient who will be traveling for the next three weeks, which means that he can not take his medicine on the road. In believing that this is the only effective way, we have effectively denied a patient treatment for three weeks. We must make the medicines used more convenient and faster working, while using smaller amounts and making them less expensive. This is a major revolution that Chinese medicine should undergo. While it has been discussed in the past, little inroads have been made. This is particularly unfortunate for the field of pediatrics, as children are rarely willing to drink down an herbal soup. Western medicine, however, has figured out how to place the medicines in sweet tasting pills or fruit flavored syrups. We should not be blind to these advancements in healing the sick.

Someone might then suggest that we simply get rid of Chinese medicine and use the more scientific Western medicine. That was certainly the case in the Republic of China when they tried to outlaw the practice of Chinese medicine. Western medicine certainly has great value, and this I know first hand as I have spent time in its schools listening to its classes. Just as it has enriched my understanding of sickness and health, I was able to also see where Chinese medicine can benefit Western doctors. The nucleus of Chinese medicine is the concept of choosing the treatment according to the pattern of illness in the patient. This cannot nor should be lost, as it is really the crux of Chinese medicine. It is the foundation and highest aspect of Chinese medicine. If a patient comes in with eczema, I do not prescribe eczema medicine. I take into account the entire state of the patient and identify what patterns of ill health that have allowed eczema to manifest. While the eczema may be the same on every patient, why their body became prone to having eczema never will be. Thus, I identify why the patient developed eczema and treat that along with treatments for the symptoms of eczema. This means that the majority of my focus is what is happening inside of the body, and much of my treatment will take place internally, as well. My concern is to cure the current pattern of ill health that allows eczema to exist on the patient, replacing it with a normal pattern of health in which eczema does not exist. It is rarely enough to simply put on a medicine topically for a serious skin disease. Treatment must happen at a systems level within the body as well as a topical level at the skin. In this way the treatment will be successful, the illness will not return, and the patient will be cured. This is part of what is meant by Chinese medicine being a wholistic medicine. It takes the whole situation of the patient into account. It is a great gift to the world if we can explain it in a way the world can understand.

What does this wholistic viewpoint mean? It means Chinese medicine believes that internal 'disharmonies' within the organs, within the systems can create symptoms of ill health like high blood pressure. When examining these symptoms, the doctor is looking for a pattern that will describe the specific internal disharmony the patient is suffering from and then treat that first and foremost. The high blood pressure is a result of a condition, it is not the condition itself. That is viewing a patient wholistically and is the heart of Chinese medicine. The heart of Chinese medicine is not Yin and Yang, or Five Element theory, or anything else. All of those things exist to help you discover the pattern of illness, and the treatments you prescribe are to affect the pattern. Herein lies the challenge to those researching Chinese medicine: to study the herbs chosen by a doctor to treat high blood pressure will provide little benefit or tangible results. The researcher must grasp that the specific herbs are irrelevant to high blood pressure; they are relevant to the pattern within the patient, which is creating high blood pressure. It is a deep and valuable way of viewing sickness and health, which other medical systems could benefit from, as well.

Perhaps this might have been accomplished, but there have been difficult periods of history since 1950. From 1958 until 1978, China's doors were closed to the outside world. Not only could we not learn from what was happening abroad, but also the world outside could not learn from us. I feel that every aspect of Chinese life was hindered from developing during that time. For Chinese medicine, the tragedy of that time wasted is painful, as many old doctors who passed away in those years could have made great contributions to the world with their knowledge. Since 1978 and the time of Deng Xiaoping, China has undergone an open door policy whose importance in so many areas should not be overlooked. In the last twenty years, great strides have been made to advance Chinese medicine and bring its benefits to the world.

Just as I have said that Chinese medicine should be constantly advancing, I also believe so should each doctor of Chinese medicine. I am seventy-eight years old and have practiced for well over fifty years, yet I constantly feel that I have more to learn. Advancing is not only for young doctors to accomplish. Of course, I have a lifetime of experience that I share with younger doctors, but it does not mean that I should stand still myself. I know that if I open a book and read a line, a page, then I will learn something. As long as one's life hasn't stopped, as long as the brain is able to, then one should read books. This is because there is always something new to learn or realize from a book. Every book contains something that can benefit your present situation. I am not satisfied with the way people live today. Many people think that I live a very stressful life, working six days a week and studying in my off hours. They feel that at my age I should spend my time in a more carefree manner. Yet I feel very carefree, and each time I open a book and make a new discovery, I am happy. If that knowledge helps me treat a patient in my practice, that is wonderful! I am very happy with learning something new every day. I love helping people and staying in touch with them after they are well again. What a gift for my spirit when I bump into a patient in a store or on the street who thanks me for healing them. After so many years, I may not remember their names, but I am always happy to hear their news. A few days ago, an old patient approached me and said, "Dr. Chen! What good luck! I had no idea where to find you after all these years and here you are! Where are you treating on Saturdays, as I would like to see you again!" That patient was so happy to have found me. Others have found me through the internet. I have brought these people happiness and good health. As long as I do that, then I feel that I have not wasted the time I was given on this earth. That means that when I finally leave, I will not have any regrets.

But I do not plan to leave any time soon. I am very careful with my health and have been for a long time. My husband died at a very young age, so I found myself with the responsibility of raising and running a family on my own. I have three children, and at that time, the oldest was only fifteen, the youngest seven. This was a great pressure, as I have no brothers or sisters to rely on for help. Thus I made a pact with myself that I would do everything possible to remain healthy and strong long enough to see my children through college. China had difficult times from 1958-1978, so this was not something to be taken for granted. I was not going to let down my family. Because of this, I was careful to exercise, careful to eat right. I have always loved sports and was a short distance sprint medallist in college. I particularly love ball sports. It doesn't matter what kind of ball-pingpong, volleyball, soccer-if I see a ball, I have to hit it. Thus, I made sure to stay healthy in exercise and in diet. I also made sure that my outlook on life was healthy. I keep an open mind and a happy disposition. I do not get jealous of other people's successes, nor long for things I cannot have. I do not lose my temper nor believe there are situations impossible to resolve. As a result of that, I make friends easily and get along with most everyone. In times of difficulties, I can ask my friends for advice. With several people to help me think things through, how can I not solve whatever problems come my way? I am especially close to the people in artist, writer music, and sports circles. How I laugh when I am with my friends! We are all very cheerful, so none of us can stay sad or vexed for long when we are together. Having good friends is a very important part of being healthy.

I am also happy with whatever I have and whatever situation I find myself in. I do not see someone rich and wish I had their money. I do not care if I eat in a fancy place or at home. I am happy and comfortable with both, neither desiring nor disparaging of either. As long as I have a clean place to live where I can rest, read my books, and make my life a bit easier, that is enough. Another key to good health and long life is being satisfied. I am very satisfied with whatever I have. A good outlook, diet, and exercise are all important. I still keep very fit and could do thirty situps for you if you like! I also walk three thousand steps every night while listening to the news. For thirty minutes, I listen to what is happening in China and the world on TV while maintaining a pace of one hundred steps per minute in my living room. Every morning I exercise each part of my body, and if I am traveling and don't have my weights, well, I just imagine I have them and exercise anyway. Why can't I! Or I can find a book with some weight to it and use that. People age from the legs up, so keeping the legs strong is very important! I eat carefully and scientifically. I know that sugar is bad for elderly people, so I don't each much of it. Of course I like it, but I control myself, as my health is much more important. I love chocolate, but I don't eat it. Instead, I just smell a good box of chocolate and that is enough. I have no plans to leave here early. I love this world and so will stay for a long time. When I finally leave, it will be healthy, not confined to a bed. I have so much to live for, just as we all do if we look at it right.

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