As a scholar more than a practitioner, my knowledge of Chinese medicine is based more on classical texts than on the practice itself, even if I see some patients. But I also meet a great number of practitioners, in various countries, and work with several of them. And I have been a patient of Chinese medicine for more than half a century, during which time I have encountered many people, of diverse origins, who are treated with Chinese medicine.
The Chinese medicine I know and praise, is the “classical Chinese medicine,” a rather different approach from TCM or bio medicine.
Indeed, studying from another viewpoint is always interesting: it questions our convictions, what we too often take as “given,” “natural,” “scientific,” “unquestionable,” “obvious,” or even “the only possibility.” Another way to approach human beings and their health leads us to ask ourselves: How do we know what we know? Where does our knowledge comes from?
This is not about contradicting Western medicine, nor criticizing it; it is rather about extending medicine to areas and in ways which may not have been thought of previously or not given enough consideration. Studying a medicine which for some 2000 years has quite successfully treated billions of people is a good opportunity to deepen and expand Western medicine.
It allows us to change our view on the importance of certain aspects, which are considered as particularly relevant in Chinese medicine:
1) Another view on health and disease.
In Western medicine, a disease is recognizable with a set of symptoms, identified with a name, and can be treated mainly after this official identification, with the appropriate protocol. In the classical Chinese approach, the disease is rather a disorder, an imbalance (in yin yang), with no clear limits between healthy and unhealthy condition other than the seriousness in the lack of equilibrium. It also shows if a person is capable of re-establishing their equilibrium by themselves or if the help of another person is needed. According to the classical Chinese thought, there is no real dichotomy, not even in yin yang.
Health and illness are not considered as two states, with a clear-cut border; one can shift from one condition to the other but – before an illness can be identified with the Western approach – the signs are already there, ready to be read by the penetrating (shrewd) practitioner or understood by the person experiencing the disorder. One can address the situation then, either by themselves or with the help of a therapist.
And this is strictly connected to the following points:
Prevention is present at all levels and in every moment. Not only to avoid falling ill––which depends on the personal conduct of life––but, once sick, also to prevent further damage; this belongs to the practitioner’s skill.
3) Nurturing life
The art of nurturing life (yang sheng 養生) is one of the foundations of Chinese medicine, which definitively opts for the care and taste of life rather than focusing on fighting death. Nurturing life is the best possible prevention, especially when it includes an inner work on one’s emotions and spirit.
This is deeply bound to a harmonious relationship with nature. The pattern for the organization of all interactions of the yin yang qi is the natural order. There is a profound analogy between the process of life in natural phenomena and in human beings; therefore, to know, understand and respect the natural order of life is to be aware of our true nature, original organization of qi and also the model for what we ought to be.
Nobody can be really healthy if they are at odds with the environment and their surroundings. It is the function of medicine to help people recognize a toxic surrounding as well as adjust to a viable environment.
4) Holistic approach
As is widely known, Chinese medicine considers all the aspects of a person: the physical, psychological, mental health are seen as one, responding to the same balance or unbalance in the interaction of Qi.
Any therapeutic act is about two human beings interacting with each other. The bond between patient and practitioner takes part – one way or another – in the accuracy of the diagnosis and the effect of the treatment.
To be true therapists, practitioners must constantly work on themselves, to get closer to what it means for them to be a human being, to develop their ability to receive and accept the sick person with all their disorders, without becoming themselves destabilised; thus remaining able to treat them as human beings.
A human being cannot be considered, treated and cured if the healing transformation does not reach the core of the person, what is usually called the “spirit” (shen 神).
Consequently, emotions are fully integrated in any pathological situation. Emotions, whether at the origin of the disorder, or a consequence of it, or just a customary state of mind (the psychological background of a person), alter the movements of qi. Chinese medicine regulates the movement of qi inside a human being; therefore emotions are part of the diagnosis. A more balanced psychology is normally one of the results of a good treatment. It is radically different from the psychosomatic approach of Western medicine and emphasizes the unity of the human being.
More than giving simple advice, the practitioner of Chinese medicine educates the patients about what caused the disease and what will restore the balance, so that they may become co-partners in the treatment and even change the conduct of their lives (for instance, through diet or emotion).
8) Diagnosis and treatment
Both diagnosis and treatment are individualised to suit each particular patient; both are an evolving process.
9) Multiple Tools
Chinese medicine combines several therapeutic “tools,” such as pharmacopeia, acupuncture and moxibustion, massages, qigong and Taiji, diet…
For these aspects of medicine, the Chinese approach is especially rich and interesting. A dialogue between Western and Chinese medicines is therefore highly desirable and advantageous. But a dialogue can only exist when both medicines are fully recognized as such.
- A text corpus, that contains the knowledge, expresses theories and explains patterns to understand how to proceed to make a diagnosis;
- Operating procedures and techniques to treat according to the diagnosis;
- Research based on the corpus and methods of treatment.
What is often called research on Chinese medicine is in fact research of Western medicine on Chinese medicine. That can be interesting and even fruitful, but it is not real research on Chinese medicine. To scrutinise one aspect of Chinese medicine, with the tools and postulates of Western science cannot qualify––or disqualify––the Chinese approach of health and treatments as true medicine. One medicine cannot receive its value from another but must draw it from itself.
To continue to study Chinese medicine not only allows the practice of its techniques, knowing how to make a diagnosis and understanding the subsequent treatment, but it also keeps this medicine alive by innovations and renovations that do not alter its essential attributes.
In summary, here are some reasons to study Chinese medicine:
- It is an efficient method of treatment, with considerably fewer side effects than Western medicine.
- It approaches health and disease from a different angle. This is always necessary but even more mandatory in a field where two (or several) human beings interact. Medicine is a science but it must also remain an art.
- When correctly understood, it offers perspectives and reflections that enrich the whole approach of medicine.
It is vital that classical Chinese medicine should be kept alive and therefore studied seriously.
The study of classical Chinese medicine empowers its own evolution and transformation, but only from its own roots, not as a graft making it merely a scion of Western medicine.
It allows Chinese medicine to be and remain a true medicine, able to converse with Western medicine (or others).
Not only does it preserve the knowledge, tradition and reflection, but it also contributes to the expansion of human medicine for the future.
If we don’t study (and practice) classical Chinese medicine, it will disappear definitively. It would be a shame not to use its richness to continue to cure people and also to develop the best possible medicine for human beings.