Science in Society Archive

Traditional Chinese Medicine & Contemporary Western Science

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho discovers out how traditional Chinese medicine is at the heart of indigenous Chinese culture, and suggests how it could be understood in terms of contemporary Western science.

The first book of Chinese medicine to have been preserved for posterity is Neijing, or Classic of Internal Medicine, by Huangdi, the Yellow Emporor, which appeared during the 'Spring and Autumn and Warring States Period (770-221 BC), and sums up medical achievements that were made before.

Accompanying Neijing is Nanjing, or Classic of Difficult Medical Problems, and other medical texts written before the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD). These laid the theoretical foundations of traditional Chinese medical practices that must have gone back to the dawn of indigenous Chinese culture.

During the Han Dynasty, other important texts were added, in particular, Hang Zhongjing's Treatise on Febrile and Miscellaneous Diseases, and Synopsis of the Golden Bookcase, which laid out diagnosis of syndromes and treatment of diseases based on the names of the six 'meridians' of acupuncture.

Many other texts were added subsequently to these great classics as experience and knowledge accumulated in an unbroken tradition, up until the Republican government took power, and in 1929, TCM was almost legally abolished.

But after the founding of the People's Republic of China, TCM was revived and actively researched, along with western medicine.

Dr. Shuai Xuezhong, Associate Professor and Director of the English -TCM Teaching and Research Section of Hunan College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, presented the theoretical foundations of TCM in terms of a 'materialist' and 'dialectical' outlook that actually cuts across the whole of Chinese culture.

The 'materialist' outlook is based on medical practice, said to derive from the 'dialectical materialist' culture of the ancients.

The 'materialist' description of the world is that it consists of matter resulting from the interaction of yin and yang principles. The human body is formed by qi that fills the space between heaven and earth. Qi is the energy that moves, and everything in the universe is the result of the movement of qi.

TCM holds that jing (vital principle, or essence) is the primordial substance of life, which is congenital as well as hereditary. It is received by the offspring from its parents. The parents' vital principles combine and form the substance from which the embryo develops. After birth, "the cultivation and supplement of congenital and acquired jing is responsible for the continuous activities of the body." Qi maintains bodily activity, its motion and change - energy transformation - is referred to as qihua, is basic to life. The essence of qihua is the movement of yin and yang. In the process, qi ascends and descends within the body and transforms within the body, and leave and enter the body.

The mutual dependence of xing (body) and shen (spirit) is central to TCM. Spirit comprises emotional and mental activities. The unity of body and spirit is essential to maintaining health and preventing disease.

Health is identified as a balance between yin and yang tendencies, and disease, a breakdown in balance. But the healthy body is conceived of as having an anti-pathogenic tendency that can be cultivated by attention to regulating and nourishing the body and spirit.

The 'dialectical' outlook sees all things dynamic and interconnected. The body is an organic whole that constantly moves and transforms through the contrary forces of yin and yang, which also govern the rest of the world. It also recognizes the primacy of qi as animating life.

Emotions act upon the body. For example, anger injures the liver, joy affects the heart, worry harms the spleen, anxiety impacts on the lung, and fright acts on the kidneys.

Therapy involves getting yin and yang back into balance: healing the cold, compensating the deficiency and purging the excess. Therapy is based on applying drugs that are contrary to the symptoms, using the principle of dialectics. Contradictions are not opposing, but supporting (in restoring the balance).

As can be seen, the materialist and dialectical traditions are not opposed, but complementary. It neatly fits in with the 'dialectical materialism' of Marxist communist philosophy reinterpreted in terms of traditional Chinese thought.

Contemporary Chinese philosopher Jin Guan Tao, whom I was fortunate to have met at a conference more than 20 years ago, has persuasively identified the dialectical and materialist outlook with indigenous Taoist and Confucian philosophies respectively. It demonstrates the uniquely Chinese ability to assimilate foreign cultures into its own.

The great British scientist and scholar of Chinese science, Joseph Needham, referred to the Chinese culture as 'organic materialism', which I think, is a more apt description of the indigenous Taoist philosophy that also has much in common with the emerging organic perspective in contemporary western science.

I have made a case that qi is better identified with coherent energy which can do work, as opposed to random energy, which is inconsequential. Qihua is thus the transformation and mobilisation of coherent energy within the organism.

Yin and yang are easily identified with polarities, more literally with negative and positive electrical polarisations. It is becoming increasingly clear that electrical fields and currents are central to energy mobilisation and intercommunication in the body.

I co-authored a paper with David Knight, published in 1998, suggesting that the meridian system of Chinese acupuncture may have its basis in the biological water channels associated with aligned collagen fibres in our connective tissues, which, according to contemporary physical chemistry, support 'jump conduction' of protons (positive electricity associated with hydrogen ions), that's much faster than ordinary conduction through electrical wires. It is part of the intercommunication system that links up the entire body to give perfect coordination.

Jing has a ready translation as hereditary influences, which is much more subtle than simply DNA. Indeed, the Chinese often refer to "congenital or prenatal deficiencies" which must be compensated by post-natal care and nourishment.

The anti-pathogenic tendency of the body is readily identified with the immune system of western medicine, which does play an important, if not the most important role in disease prevention.

The unity of mind and body or emotions and body is not so strange, after all, when stress is generally recognized as a risk factor in many diseases.

As can be seen, many of the most important concepts in traditional Chinese medicine have their counterparts in contemporary Western science. There is fertile ground for mutual enrichment towards understanding the organic whole in health and disease, and towards developing the most effective health system for nations.

Article first published 11/04/03

Sources and references

  1. Ho MW and Knight D. Liquid crystalline meridians. The American Journal of Chinese Medicine 1998, 26, 251-263.
  2. Ho MW. Coherent energy, liquid crystallinity and acupuncture . Talk presented to British Medical Acupuncture Society, October 2, 1999, London
  3. Needham J. The Shorter Science & Civilisation in China: 1. An abridgement by Colin A. Ronan, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1978.
  4. Shuai Xuezhong. Fundamentals of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Foreign Language Press, Beijing, 1992.
  5. Scheid V. The globalisation of Chinese medicine. The Lancet 1999, 354, siv10.

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