Friday, May 4, 2007


Traditional Chinese Medicine:
A History Revealed -part 2

Historical Perspectives of Chinese Medicine

The earliest known traditions related to Chinese medicine date from the 17th to 11th centuries BC during the Shang dynasty and involved ancestral influences. It was believed that ancestors had influence over the living and were able to directly endanger and destroy human life. The focus of healing practice was directed at, not only the living, but the deceased.

Ancestral ritualistic healing practices were later supplanted by more generalized yet still identifiable entities such as demoniacal, magical, and supernatural beliefs. These forces were thought to be the cause of disease. For example, "swellings" were thought to be caused by possession and healing practices utilized instruments such as needles in an effort to purge the affected body of the demon.

The Han dynasty was a period of significant importance to historical Chinese Medicine and is described as being the most formative period of its development. During the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD, a Chinese intellectual elite attempted to categorize and explain the world and its phenomena to a reduced number of causes and effects. An attempt to supplant "demonological forces" with so called natural laws gained momentum.

During this period, there were varying attempts to systematize the natural world by creating grouped contexts or constructs associated with the natural environment. This led to the creation of systems and thought in which the practice of healing could be connected with these now categorized phenomena. Here there are glimpses of a more rational approach to medicine. Alas, the earlier magical influences would not be eliminated and eventually a hybrid version of naturalistic/magic Chinese medicine began to take root.

There erupted a plethora of different world views, healing practices, and methods. These approaches often contradicted each other in sometimes fundamental ways. Unfortunately, this intriguing period of inquiry and observation never led to further developments and refinements of Chinese medical theory. The bubbling pool of thought that could be considered a "pre-enlightenment" era never reached a point of general consensus and no method to move toward a reconciliation ever developed.

Concepts such as the ying/yang and the five elements were combined with healing practices creating a confusing litany of disarticulated therapies. During this era, practitioners created forms of "systematic correspondence" which was comprised of assumed links between a practitioners perception of the natural world and the human body.

There followed a period after the Han dynasty where two general schools of thought came to the fore. A traditional view of "systematic correspondence"continued to create often baroque and elaborate theories and it is at this point that acupuncture literature begins to frequently appear in the historical record. These correspondences involved the belief that all things were related through a system of correspondence and the body for example, could be influenced by changes elsewhere in this system.

"If in winter one behaves as one would in summer, bad things might happen"

The other area of thought concentrated on a more pharmaceutical treatment exploring herbal medicine, and was initially more promising, but emphasized, as mentioned, often disparate and conflicting concepts describing qi, yin/yang, and the five elements. As you may note, there may seeds of truth to these approaches (i.e., pharmaceutical herbs), but they lose coherence throughout their development as reason and observation give way to assumption and belief.

There was an attempt, especially between the 12th and 15th centuries to reconcile these two traditions although they were ultimately unsuccessful and the whole of Chinese medicine theory remained stagnant and irreconciled from that time on. Epler (CAVMC, ch2, pg 22) elucidates;

" In the history of Chinese Medicine, rather than progressing from a reasonable, although incomplete knowledge of the body to a more detailed one by systematic dissection, the medical writers go in the opposite direction, under the sway of the cosmologists, to a less accurate picture."

By the 19th and 20th century, as Western medicine was introduced into China, Traditional Chinese Medicine began to fade as a primary practice and some estimates reveal that about 15-20% of people in China presently use only traditional therapies.

In Western countries, the Traditional Chinese Medicine actually observed and practiced is based on a westernized version of Zhongyi, or "modern Traditional Chinese Medicine". Zhongyi is in turn a distillation, a "best hits" version of the more rational parts of Chinese Medicines vast and disarticulated past. Much of Zhongyi was put together from the 1950's to the 1970's at which point the West eagerly received what they thought of as "ancient medicine".

Here the tale loops to the beginning of the Wests current fascination with Traditional Chinese Medicine or better said a twice removed, manipulated, and designer made Western version of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Reference note: Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine Considered (Ramey & Rollin) is a well researched and scholarly book that evaluates several aspects of "alternative" veterinary medicine, including historical, ethical, and evidenced perspectives.

A solidly referenced work, it serves as a gateway for further investigation into various aspects of "alternative" veterinary medicine. Highly recommended, it should be a part of every veterinarians and physicians library. For that matter, it needs to be part of any ones repertoire of resources when studying this area with a critical eye.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Let us not forget that this wonderful, soothing, wisely natural form of therapy is well on the way to rendering the rhinocerous and some species of tiger extinct.


- barista