Science in Society Archive

Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China

Traditional Chinese Medicine enjoys high status in China, which is good for the health of the nation. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is fully institutionalised and supported by the Chinese government, and very much a part of the contemporary Chinese healthcare system.

It delivers almost 40% of total healthcare services, and like western biomedicine, is predominantly based in hospitals. There are almost 3000 dedicated hospitals for TCM, and over 95% of western medical hospitals also have fully-fledged Chinese medicine wards and outpatient departments.

TCM is practiced in its own right, integrated with western medicine, or used to enhance the effectiveness of western medical treatments. In practice, however, the distinction among the three ways of delivering TCM is blurred. Western biomedical concepts and ideas have been assimilated into Chinese medicine, and western drugs are routinely prescribed in Chinese-medicine wards and outpatients departments. TCM physicians, for their part, face pressure from hospitals to use revenue-generating biomedical diagnostic facilities such as ultrasound and computed tomography.

TCM is also used by the China to promote Chinese culture. It is defined as a 'national treasure', which might have further insulated it from debate as a science. Though such a debate should include a thorough critique on the conceptual and practical deficiencies of the mainstream scientific model itself, which is not what the majority who wants a debate has in mind.

The need to promote positive perceptions of TCM abroad is forcing internal changes, nevertheless. For example, there are efforts to prohibit the use of endangered species in preparation of TCM drugs, and to use research methods acceptable to the dominant international drugs market, although this may not be appropriate in many cases, and reflects an unquestioned acceptance of the dominant reductionist medical model (see Globalising Chinese medicine, this series).

It could be argued that the strongest proof of the efficacy of TCM is the high level of public support in China. A familiar sight that has remained unchanged over the years of turmoil in China is the morning qigong exercises practiced in the streets by millions of Chinese people.

More importantly, self-prescribed, ready-made Chinese medicines are an important part of the people's therapeutic regime. This includes a bewildering array of 'quick dissolve' herbal health drinks for treating or preventing a range of diseases, from cancer and diabetes to inflammation, influenza and toxicity; or else, like ginseng, they simply 'regulate the body' to promote a general state of health. The ingredients are typically a mixture of well-known herbs and flowers or food items.

Chinese people take responsibility for their own health most seriously, and the use of medicine and disease prevention forms a continuum with food and nutrition. Although most Chinese people may believe in the superior diagnostic powers of western biomedicine, many prefer TCM treatments particularly for chronic diseases where the side effects of western biomedicine are seen, rightly, to often far outweigh the benefits.

The Chinese government is pressing hard for the systematisation of TCM disease categories, diagnostic standards, and therapeutic techniques, and to enforce a more stringent evaluation of therapeutic outcomes. At the same time, however, the scientific status of TCM is not being doubted, it is decreed a priori by the state.

One must remember, however, that TCM has thousands of years of accumulated experience and knowledge behind it, and the government's support for it is crucial to prevent the kind of inter-professional struggles with the dominant western biomedical model that have impeded the wide adoption of traditional medicines in other countries such as Malaysia and India.

The World Health Organisation unveiled its first Global Strategy for Traditional and Complementary Alternative Medicine in January 2002, to promote integrating traditional medicine into national health systems globally. This is an opportunity to build safe, affordable and effective national health systems, especially for Third World countries rich in both medicinal plant resources and traditional knowledge. China will be closely watched as an example, for better or for worse, as she is actively pushing for global acceptance of her traditional remedies and competing in the global drugs market.

Article first published 10/04/03


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