On the history of Chinese Medicine

Oracle stone ca.5000 BC

Oracle stone ca.5000 BC

China is home to a very old civilisation, going back about 6000 years. Despite a very varied political history, the cultural continuity of the region is astounding and its influence on the people of East Asia beyond its actual political boundaries has always been considerable.

script  - 4th C BC

script – 4th C BC

If much more is known of Chinese history and culture than of any other ancient civilisation in the world, it is owed to the fact that the Chinese ruling classes had developed a system of script as early as 1200 BC and more or less stuck to it to the present day.

Because of this written tradition, we know that the Chinese began to build their sophisticated system of medical diagnosis and therapeutic intervention about 3000 years ago.

Even though the development of this tradition continued right up to the 21th century, it suffered two major challenges during the 19th and 20th century, the first coming from without, the second from within. In the course of the weakening of the late Chinese emperors, in the late 18th and throughout the 19th century Western political, economic and cultural influence had increased and pressure rose to modernise society by adopting Western technology including Western approaches to medicine.  The trend continued throughout the decades during which China suffered turmoil and destruction with considerable loss of scholarship and resources. The communist and maoist Revolution explicitly fostered a spirit of rejecting the “old”, i.e. the past, in favour of the “modern”, i.e. the future, very strikingly expressed in a poster printed in 1967 during Mao Tse Dong’s Cultural Revolution with the slogan “Destroy the old world; Forge the new world” featuring a Red Guard demolishing a crucifix, a Buddha  and classical Chinese texts.  Much in terms of medical texts that had survive the turmoils so far would have been lost now, unless it happened to have been included in the corpus of Traditional Chinese Medicine, collected and publicised following the instigation of Mao in the early 1950ties. The selection criteria the collation and publication of the corpus of “Traditional Chinese Medicine” (TCM) remains unclear – as do the motives of Mao’s initiative.  However, ancient texts are still being retrieved from tombs and such, providing scholars with the rare opportunity to read very old original texts, i.e. text that have not been suffered from changes in the course of tradition.

Over the last 40 years we have thus seen an extention of scholarship beyond this fairly narrow framework of TCM on the basis of  old texts as well as the achievements of  modern science in the field of physics, bio-medicine and neuro science.

Five Element Model

Five Element Model

Chinese Medicine – as all models of healing – is built on a culturally accepted philosophical interpretation of the human condition and the order of the universe. The patterns of adoption of Chinese Medicine therefore shows a tendency of following in the wake of the dissemination of buddhist and taoist teachings as they provide the philosophical basis for its approach to healing.

Yin and Yang model

Yin and Yang model

Thus this medical practice made its way into countries like Japan, Korea, Tibet, Vietman, but also into parts of Russia. Even in the days of the communist Sowjet Union,  buddhism was prevalent in some autonomous republics in the far east,  such as  Buryatia and  Tuva Republic , but also in south of the Kaukasus such as Kalmykia  -  and with it spread the use Chinese Medicine.

Western Europe owes what knowledge of Chinese Medicine it gained before the 1960s in the first instance to sinologists, missionaries and travellers. Following the Opium War and the Boxer Rebellion in the 19th and early 20th century, it began to draw more attention from European scholars – albeit not so much scholars of medicine, but rather of philosophy, linguistics, anthropology and the like.

Since the 1960s, interest in buddhism and taoism sprung up – in the wake of the peace movement directed against the war in Vietman and the flower power movement nurtured by Indian philosophy sprung up in the USA and spread to Europe and Great Britain. At the same time, we see a renaissance of academic interest in oriental philosophy in Japan, the USA and Europe. In combination, the two movements and the visit of presient Nixon to China in 1972 seem to have ignited the ever-growing  interest in Chinese Medicine, that we see today.

In the last 40 years, much research has been done and many well-researched  books were published -  most of them focussing on the theory and practice of Chinese Medicine,  while Western style research on the efficacy of treatment is still lacking behind.

Both branches of Western scholarship in the field, i.e. the systematic and the scientific, have long suffered from a lack of students, scholars and researchers who read and speak Chinese well enough to widen and deepen our understanding of the Chinese philosophical and the medical approach. Meanwhile, China has become a world power not just politically, but also economically and scientifically (in the Western understanding of the word), and as it has opened up the West the exchange has been rapidly increasing – not least with the help of the internet. >>>

Clearly, since Mao Tse Dong’s death the tide has turned  and present-day China seems to have no intention to give up its philosophical traditions and medical knowledge just for the sake of “modern science”. Although many Chinese scholars trained in the “natural sciences”  are aiming to develop methodologies that will allow to “measure” and thus “scientifically evaluate” TCM based diagnoses, interventions and outcomes of treatments, they are well aware that the classical Chinese view of health and disease is not really compatible with Western science as we know it.

So China has not just opened up to the West, but also started to retrieve lost or hidden classical resource material of her own tradition, partly by encouraging classically trained physicians to return to teaching and practice, partly by re-introducing material from Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet and other countries that had adopted and developed varying aspects of the Chinese system on the basis of older writings and teachings originating in China, but lost during the Revolution.  Nowadays, all over China Western Medicine is taught alongside Chinese Medicine and much research is being done with a view of both bodies of knowledge.

Likewise, more and more universities and research institutes in the West have integrated Chinese Medicine into their syllabi and research programmes, continuously expanding  the corpus of knowledge beyond that which is known as Mao Tse Dong’s restricted collection of “TCM”.  ( press control and click)   >>> 

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