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Wang Jinhuai     Chen Tongyun     Sun Zengyi

Chinese Medicine is a huge topic! 

Its origins lie in folk medicine of the lands that are now China, Tibet, the Himalaya and India, and extend back in time many thousands of years. It has three main treatment branches: Bodywork, Herbal Medicine, and Acupuncture, and comprises a number of "styles" which can be placed in the following general categories– Daoist, Buddhist, Confucian, Martial, and TCM. TCM stands for "Traditional Chinese Medicine" and is a bit of a misnomer, as it is actually the most modern development, dating from the 1970's.

An excellent article on the history of contemporary Chinese medicine follows below, suffice it to say here that prior to the Nationalist and Communist periods of Chinese history, medicine was handed down in "family" lineages, teacher to disciple, the training often lasting in the tens of years.

Early Chinese medicine was based on the philosophical theories of Daoism, Buddhism, etc as outlined above. These philosophies are based in turn on hundreds of years of observation of the natural world, experimentation and practice. The basic tenets of these philosophies include the taiji (yin and yang), qi and blood, the five elements of transformation, and the yi jing (book of changes, eight trigrams). Chinese medicine  is both art and science, it looks at the person first, and the person's place in the world. The person's illness is seen as one of many factors interacting with the person. Its view is integrative, seeking to put sometimes disparate parts together into a coherent whole; rather than reductive, that is, taking the whole apart to study the pieces. It is not necessarily predicated on linear thinking.

TCM style medicine is a systematized, logical approach to Chinese medicine, approved by the Communist government. Both the Nationalists and the Communists were interested in applying the rigors of western science to Chinese medicine. This has had both positive and negative effects. This style of medicine has now received almost worldwide attention. Perhaps the greatest loss is diversity and depth of knowledge and practice.

Read on for a short history of contemporary Chinese medicine, and see the links below for a more thorough survey of ancient to modern Chinese medicine, and interviews with some living Chinese doctors of the old school.

Understanding the Past
An Historical Timeline of Chinese Medicine

By Professor Wang Jinhuai

Using Medicine to Benefit Society
Interview with Dr Chen Tongyun

Digging for the Gems of Chinese Medicine
Interview with Dr Sun Zengyi

The following is excerpted from an article by Andrew Nugent-Head, director of  The Association For Traditional Studies.

The Evolution of Contemporary Chinese Medicine in China

One of the greatest benefits you can give your study in China is understanding the history of its medicine. That it began over 2,400 years ago and evolved into one of the great medical systems of the planet is a given. What is important to understand is how the last 150 years of history have shaped its current practice. Our discussion here begins in the mid 1800's, with a corrupt and weak Imperial court, foreign powers carving out spheres of influence (another way of saying occupation of territory), and the Opium War. It was during this time that Chinese intelligentsia had to face the reality that regardless of the court's belief that all other races and countries were uncouth barbarians, these outsiders were more powerful than the Chinese. The question of why arose, and the political beliefs that spawned the Nationalist party were formed. They believed that China had been focused on the achievements of its past, whereas foreign powers were focusing on developing the new, the modern. They believed that China's closed borders policy to the outside world had not allowed its people to enrich their lives from the inventions and discoveries of the times. They believed that China had to join the international community and modernize in order to remain a sovereign power of influence. This movement grew until eventually the Imperial court was overthrown and the Republic of China was founded under Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yatsun). A forward thinking intelligentsia now had control of the country and were working hard to modernize China.

With the desire to modernize also came a distrust of China's traditional knowledge. The backlash against traditional customs was far reaching. In 1928, the Nationalist government declared the practice of Chinese medicine illegal, believing it was superstitious and backward compared to the growing influence of western medicine. They cannot be completely blamed for this belief, as during those times of war, turmoil and hunger, a large amount of charlatan practitioners were at work throughout the cities and countryside. This was coupled with the introduction of penicillin from the west, a miracle cure and proof of the superiority of all things modern at the time. While unsuccessful at completely outlawing Chinese medicine, it was forbidden in hospitals and government organized health facilities. Now existing outside of the official medical system and lacking regulation, an even larger number of charlatans outshadowed the authentic lineages of Chinese medicine being passed on in teacher-disciple relationships.

What follows is an incredibly violent and difficult period of history for China. The head of the Nationalist government was unbelievably corrupt, weakening the fledging infrastructure of New China. The Japanese then invaded and occupied China, committing one of the greatest atrocities against a country and race that history has ever known. Amidst this chaos, Communism began to gather momentum, and a civil war was unleashed on an already battered country. When the Communists emerged victorious and founded the People's Republic of China in 1949, traditional knowledge and teaching methods had already undergone almost 100 years of hardship.

In the first years of the PROC, the Ministry of Health simply continued the policies that existed under the Nationalist government towards Chinese medicine. However, as the depth of poverty and illness left from decades of war became apparent, the government encouraged any type of medicine, Chinese or Western, to help the masses. This lead to the creation of government sanctioned institutes for the study of Chinese medicine and the establishment of Chinese medical hospitals. For a brief time, old doctors of great lineages found themselves respected by the government and teaching in schools. However, adversity was to continue in China, and this support of traditional medicine was set against the backdrop of the Great Leap Forward, known in China as the Three Years of Great Calamity. Due to poor government policies and natural catastrophes, an epic famine killed up to 30 million people, depending on the source. With the end of that period, there were efforts to remove Mao Zidong from running the country. In order to retain control, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution and purged those in the government against him. The propaganda of the revolution was all things of China's past were the source of its current difficulties, and the old practitioners who were just recently brought into the educational system found themselves labeled as counter-revolutionaries and enemies of the state. Many were sent to re-education camps or were forced to renounce their lineages and training. As today there are many books and movies documenting that horrific time period, the full details of what happened to all things traditional will not be discussed here.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, China spent the next three years rebuilding an educational and medical infrastructure. This included the reopening of Chinese medical institutions. However, the focus was on a modern, logical version of Chinese medicine, paradoxically called Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM. The effects of the long history against traditional lineages and practitioners culminating in the Cultural Revolution were irrevocable, though. Many great practitioners and lines of knowledge had died, others had simply stopped practicing. Those traditional doctors who were reinstated in hospitals and training institutes found themselves marginalized and without influence. They also feared a return of anti-tradition movements and were careful on what they said or what they taught.

This lead to the dual reality of Chinese medicine in China that began in the eighties and continues to this day. Official TCM is the dominant paradigm of Chinese medicine, yet represents a modern, researched approach, including chemical analysis of herbal constituents, experimenting on laboratory animals, and double blind studies. The belief within this system is that old doctors or traditional lineages have interesting empirical knowledge or specific skills and techniques, but do not operate under a logical theoretical system which can be examined by scientific methods. Outside of this paradigm exists old doctors and lineages who work among the people, sometimes mined for their practical knowledge by the 'institute faction' of TCM, sometimes hassled by Ministry of Health for not operating within the confines of TCM, but most often ignored by government and lay people alike, their knowledge doomed to extinction with their passing. Their belief is the 'institute faction' practitioners are so focused on theories and research that they can't treat the actual patients in front of them.


Understanding TCM

There is an unfair amount of bashing of the TCM paradigm both in China and the west by traditionalists. TCM is still operating from the foundation theories of Chinese medicine, i.e. Yin-Yang, Five Elements, the Shan Han Lon, etc. The dominant treatment modalities are still herbs, acupuncture and bodywork. As the dominant force of Chinese medicine in China, they also have incredible resources in the form of hospitals, schools and research. Everyday, hundreds of thousands of Chinese are treated with Chinese medicine under this paradigm, and many experience excellent results. Though I am personally as traditionalist as one can be in this medicine, I have come to view TCM as another style or lineage of practice within the greater history of Chinese medicine. It is has a specific personality, it approaches illnesses in a certain way, and it does have much to offer the sick. That there are many practitioners of this paradigm who have very poor clinical skills, that there are many TCM hospitals that look more like factories and treat patients more like meat instead of humans is a reality. But there are also very skilled, caring practitioners at work within the paradigm, and institutions that are doing their best to help the masses. It is simply a question of finding those practitioners and hospitals, and not the large number of uncaring situations that many westerners equate with all of Chinese medicine in China.

To understand this dichotomy, it is important to remember that there are between 1 and 2 billion people in China. Healthcare for the masses is still young and developing. At this time in history, there is a greater focus on getting some kind of healthcare out there regardless of quality, than focusing on only having high quality institutions. The efforts under Communism to re-educate the masses into a certain thinking pattern and the thinking pattern that arose out of living under Communism has also greatly affected the personalities of TCM institutions, its administrators and doctors. To someone who does not understand the history of the country and doesn't have the time or skills to uncover the good within all of this, it is easy to claim that, "Traditional Chinese medicine no longer exists in China." It is, however, patently untrue.


Understanding the Traditional Practitioners

There is also an unfair amount of pedestaling of the traditional practitioners existing outside of the TCM paradigm in China. According to Dr. Lu Binkui, who was one of the last great champions of traditional Chinese medicine within the Ministry of Health throughout the 50's, 60's and 70's, there are less than 2,000 truly skilled traditional practitioners representing authentic lineages left in the whole country. 2,000 in a country of over a billion people. Many of these 'traditional' practitioners existing outside of the system trace their roots to the charlatans of the 1800-1900's, or the barefoot doctor movement which took place in the 1960's. As they are poorly regulated, others simply claim fake lineages, attaching themselves to Daoist and Buddhist lines out of remote mountains. That the current paradigm of TCM belittles or mistrusts the 'practitioners among the people' is not without reason.

There are, however, great lines of traditional knowledge left in China. They do exist outside of the official paradigm, or work within the paradigm but do not teach their traditions within them. These are the last of the great lineages that survived an incredibly difficult 150 years of history, and their practitioners are mostly in their 70's, 80's and 90's. They are practitioners who trained incredibly hard in incredibly rich systems under incredibly difficult circumstances. These are the practitioners that ATS as an organization focuses on in its preservation and documentation efforts. They are why ATS exists. However, they are not easy to learn from. They absorbed their knowledge over decades of working with their teachers and do not view their knowledge in a systematic fashion. They are incredibly demanding of any students who wish to learn from them, yet traditionally gave no promise they would actually impart their knowledge. Most importantly, they have no interest or ability to teach beginner or intermediate level practitioners. They teach at the highest levels of Chinese medicine, making it difficult for anyone not already deeply trained and experienced to grasp what they are offering.


The Association For Traditional Studies Website–


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