Traces of Chinese Medicine in Modern China

Living in China as a Chinese medicine practitioner trained elsewhere gives me a special outlook. In my daily life, I find that I’m often looking out for glimpses of traditional medicine. And these glimpses tell a funny story!

Modern China has become incredibly modernized, at an incredible pace. In a few short years, the majority of the population went from living without landline telephones or computers to owning smartphones. There is a constant, voracious, pace of development as new buildings, new apartment complex communities, new highways, new subways and high-speed railways are being built at double-quick time. It seems that everything is shiny and new — which is a far cry from the traditional, agriculturally based philosophical underpinnings of our medicine.

Like Westerners, modern Chinese also have a preference for modern medicine, and there is a widespread belief here that “scientific” medicine and its products are more effective. This is so true, that the popularity of antibiotic use in China — often available OTC, and used for viral infections like common colds — is at a staggering level. In 2013, the nation’s total antibiotic consumption was recorded at 162,000 tons, of which 48% were consumed by humans (livestock consumed the rest). The long term effect of this heavy antibiotic use will bring unwanted bacterial resistance, leading to future health problems, as will the country’s severe pollution and heavy rate of smoking.

And yet … in this modern, shiny nation you can still find everywhere glimpses of the traditional medicine and its philosophy. People practice tai ji quan in parks and quiet spots along the busy roads. There are restaurants that offer zhou (congee) and other dishes created around traditional diet therapy principles, as well as the ubiquitous home-steeped herbal wines (yao jiu) seen in large glass jars at every restaurant. Everywhere, on nearly every street, you can find pharmacies that stock Chinese herbs and patent medicines, as well as pharmaceuticals and Bandaids. You can also find streetside massage, cupping, and gua sha practitioners (especially in a traditional neighborhood like mine). Cell phone providers even send their customers regular SMS messages about health practices to manage seasonal changes! Moreover, you see “new” uses of Chinese herbs: Yunnan Bai Yao toothpaste is advertised in commercials and sold in grocery stores; dong chong xia cao is added to expensive beauty serums.

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Chinese citizens generally consider traditional medicine to be, in the late Chairman Mao’s words, a “treasure house” of traditional Chinese culture, and they are proud of its unique role in their history, as every child learns in school. But Chinese people aren’t consumers of Chinese traditional medicine. In my experience, I have met many Chinese people who have never tried acupuncture (yet they all know it’s “painful”!), and who seem to universally believe that Chinese medicine is only good for chronic diseases, and that Western medicine is infinitely better for acute ones. A Chinese survey found that only 29% of Beijing citizens seek traditional medicine treatments on a regular basis, so that the majority of Chinese people living in the Chinese capital rarely or never choose acupuncture or herbal medicine to cure their ills.

This strange contradictory appreciation for traditional medicine can also be seen in the response to Dr. Tu Youyou’s recent Nobel Prize for her research on extracting artemisnin from qing hao. Her work was based on finding formulas for treating malaria by reading classical medical books, but her recognition by both the Nobel Committee and the Chinese government is for her role in the “modernization” of traditional medicine. Much like traditional medicine’s critics in other countries, Chinese critics like scientist He Zuoxiu think that useful herbs and techniques like acupuncture should be extracted from the traditional medicine, and that “ ‘people should abandon its medical theory and focus more on researching the value of herbs with a modern scientific approach,’ Dr. He said in an interview.”

Despite this push towards modernization, there are older and even younger practitioners here who care deeply about returning to traditional medicine’s traditional thinking & principles. I’m lucky to be studying with one such doctor in this minority of traditionally-minded practitioners, Dr. Jin Zhao of Chengdu. Nonetheless, I think that the future of Chinese traditional medicine may well lie outside of China. Surprisingly, even the number of overseas practitioners (400,000) of traditional Chinese medicine is more than double what it is in China (less than 187,000)! As practitioners and students of Chinese traditional medicine, I believe we have an obligation to to learn more and to learn more deeply, and to especially explore its classical roots, so that it might reach its true potential as a worldwide medical discipline.



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