When people talk about Chinese medicine it’s usually referred to as Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), but what does that actually mean? Is this how Chinese medicine was taught and practiced traditionally? It turns out, probably not! Which leads me to believing that in terms of philosophy, research and clinical practice the term ‘modern Chinese medicine’ better reflects how Chinese medicine is now practiced; both in China and around the world. To explain this requires some historical background and current practices.
Traditional Chinese medicine
- Despite its name TCM is actually a relatively modern term that first appeared after the Chinese Revolution in 1949. The Revolution saw a massive transformation of Chinese society and the many views and practices of Chinese medicine were remodelled and standardised by the ‘People’s Republic of China’ (PROC) into ‘Traditional Chinese medicine’
- Even though TCM is a modern term it’s based on the work of early scholars; with books such as the ‘Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal medicine’ (written 2,200 years ago) and the ‘Shang Han Lun’ (published in 210 AD) and the ‘Eight principles’ being central principles of TCM, which is still used by about ¼ of the world’s population
- The term ‘Chinese medicine’ was first coined by Jesuits who arrived from Portugal in the 19th century as it was just ‘medicine’ before their perspective on it. Plus this term of ‘Chinese medicine’ actually covers a number of different medical styles and philosophies that developed in China and other Asian countries over centuries. But what all the forms of Chinese medicine do have in common is the aim to promote good health by adjusting the internal balance and function of the body
- Chinese medicine has a continuous written history and academic literature that dates back almost 2,500 years and it’s the oldest professionally practiced form of medicine in the world
- The first gynaecology specialists were recorded in the Tong Dynasty (700 AD) and the first specialist Chinese medicine book on obstetric medicine was published in 847 AD
- Chinese doctors identified collections of signs and symptoms that formed ‘patterns’ or ‘syndromes’ of good and poor health. These patterns were attributed to different organs and substances and used to create a framework to explain disease processes
- Therapies developed to restore health by improving the function of organs and substances or by removing illnesses from the body; acupuncture and herbal medicine are the best known, but diet, massage, and Tai-Qi or Qi-Gong also promote health
- Different styles of acupuncture that are still practiced include ‘5-element’ and the Japanese styles of acupuncture and herbal medicine
Modern Chinese medicine
- In the 21st century it’s normal to have blood and other tests to get a clear diagnosis to help choose what treatment to have. Chinese medicine has a different view on health and ill health, which means that most Western medical diagnosis can be differentiated (divided up into patterns) through the person’s symptoms into recognised Chinese medicine ‘patterns’ that can lead to the Western diagnosis. Effectively the Western knowledge is now used to inform and refine the Chinese medicine treatment
- This is very different to what was available in the 1950’s (in terms of diagnosis and treatment) when the term Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) was created
- Chinese medicine has embraced modern western medicine and learnt from it to extend its ability to diagnose in new, more specific ways by explaining Western medical diseases in Chinese medical terms; in fact it’s become even more of a personalised functional medicine than it was before!
- This integration of biomedicine into Chinese medicine has spread into research where Chinese herbs are assessed for their chemical composition and pharmacological properties in addition to their traditional energetic properties. This extends the options for treatment as herbs can be chosen specifically for actions (such as against certain bacteria) which increases the efficiency of treatment
The integration of Chinese and western medicines is becoming more and more common around the world, which is why I think modern Chinese medicine is a much better way to explains how Chinese medicine is practiced today as it’s evolved far beyond its traditional roots in response to Western science, research and knowledge.