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The Tao of Chinese Medicine – I

by Yau-Man Chan, Nov 02 2008

I am not a medical doctor and I don’t even play one on TV!  So how am I qualified to write about Chinese medicine?  Well because I grew up with it! Is that really good enough?  Yes, and every Chinese who grew up in a Chinese household in a Chinese community are inculcated with knowledge about Chinese medicine and how it works.  Like any other Chinese kid growing up, when I was sick my mother could quickly diagnose my illness and if she couldn’t, she could turn to her mother or aunts or other higher authority figures. In more severe cases, there’s always the guy selling herbs. No formal training is required. By osmosis, we were all supposed to have absorbed medical knowledge and know what foods – plant/animal parts would be good medication for whatever ailed us.  I now live in a region of the U.S. very much enamored with eschewing Western evidence-base medicine for herbal treatments, acupuncture, and other Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) cures. I can usually provoke shock and jaw-dropping silence when my response to questions about TCM is that I want nothing to do with it when it comes to the health and well-being of my family.  The two primary arguments in favor of TCM involve the classic logical fallacy of argument from antiquity and conspiracy theory about the evil intents of “Big Pharma. I will confine the rest of this blog to discussing the totally unscientific and perhaps even anti-scientific origins of TCM and leave debunking the Big Pharma Conspiracy to my fellow skeptics.

The argument from antiquity in favor of TCM usually goes like this:  it’s been around N-thousand years (replace N with your favorite integer between 1 and 5) and so it must have worked well! The truth of the matter is that TCM has no scientific basis and has been developed over the years on a foundation of very flawed understanding of the human anatomy and physiology.  Historically, the pathetically low cure-rate of diseases plaguing the Chinese population with access only to TCM resulted in the evolution of a hyper-superstitious culture bent on seeing ghosts and goblins around every corner and behind every bush, too ready to take another life away.   The inefficacy of their medical treatments throughout history, in my opinion, is responsible for the Chinese culture’s obsession with superstitions associated with maintaining good health and longevity.  The list of superstitious do’s and don’ts are especially long when it came to childbirth, prenatal and postnatal care.  Please note that I am not talking about ancient history or even 100 years ago – I am talking about the persistence of these superstitions today in very modern Chinese communities in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and big modern cities in China.

To understand TCM, you do not need to understand chemistry, biology, anatomy or physiology because the foundation of TCM has nothing to do with them.  You need instead to understand Taoism and Confucianism, as these philosophies are the founding principles of TCM. I will expend some ink here to explain these two very powerful underlying influences on Chinese society which gave rise to their understanding of the human body and the attendant medical fallacies.

Taoism is a philosophical movement founded by Lao-Zhi .  In his canon, the “Tao I-Ching,” Lao-Zhi laid out what Chinese are taught as the “Tao” of life – translated properly as “the righteous way” of life.  Taoism asserts that because we humans are a part of nature, goodness and well-being comes from being in harmony with nature.  Nature was thought to be made up of five elements – water, fire, wood, metal (gold) and earth.  This led to the conclusion that we must have five organs and five orifices, each one associated with one of the five elements. The difference between living and non-living things in nature was thought to be in the presence of “vital energy flow” in living organisms and absent in non-living things.  This is “Chi” (or “Qi”) — which has been adopted by the New Age Movement as their ubiquitous pseudoscience jargon de jour.  Along with Chi, is the concept of maleness (strength, virility, bravery, intelligence and every sexist stereotype you can ascribe to men) and femaleness (gentility, compassion, intuition, nurturing and every sexist stereotype you can ascribe to women) which are enshrined in the principle of Ying and Yang. Every food, animal, plant, word, color, taste, and feel have varying degrees of Ying and Yang.

Taoism is the quest for harmony with the universe.  Life is good when you are in harmony with each other and with nature.  You are healthy when your Chi flows smoothly through your body and you consume food, do stuff, use words and think thoughts that will keep your Ying and Yang in balance.  Since everything ultimately comes from nature, we must all somehow be one with nature, animate and inanimate objects included.  From this cosmogony – and unencumbered by verification or falsification by any experimentation – other fantastic ideas about nature and how nature works spawned.  Taoism proposed many of the proto-scientific ideas found among early Greek philosophers like Aristotle, Epicurus, Pythagoras, and others. But while the West has long moved away from the five elements/five senses approach to understanding nature and pathology of illness, every classically trained TCM “doctor” still start out with the proposition that the kidney is water, liver is fire, stomach is wood, lungs are metal and heart is earth when diagnosing illness and dispensing herbal medication.  I will leave you to your imagination to associate our five orifices with the five elements! While there may be nothing wrong with adopting Taoism as a philosophy or religion, it was unmitigated disaster to use it to gain an understanding of the physical human body for medical purpose.

Why have the Chinese after thousands of years of civilization not developed the scientific method to examine and put to test all the “common sense” knowledge about nature they have been taught or acquired by intuition?  Blame it on the sage Kung-Zhi, anglicized as Confucius.  The teachings of Confucius saturated every aspect of the Chinese society but it is not a religion and barely a philosophy.  The teachings are basically a set of rules governing relationships and the “proper” conducts of every possible social intercourse.  Confucianism is concerned with the hierarchical relationships of emperors over subjects, masters over serfs, husbands over wives, parents over children, teachers over students … and the list goes on. Then there is the preference for symmetry over non-symmetry, intellectual work over manual labor, and common sense over logic. He promoted common sense and reasonableness as the hallmark of a scholar.  For Confucius, it is not enough that a proposition be “logically correct”; it must be in accord with “human nature.”  Between Taoism and Confucianism, all the necessary ingredients to incubate and foster critical thinking was “taught” out of the Chinese society.

The complexity of the human body and all its attendant diseases and ailments can neither be explored nor understood by mere intuition and common sense.  Advancement in medical science requires application of the scientific method and as we make discoveries we must have an avenue to replace past knowledge with more current ones even if we have to contradict our teachers.  When students cannot challenge inaccurate or flawed knowledge of the teachers, errors are passed on generations after generations and the quest for knowledge and understanding of nature is stifled. When scholars can only contemplate and make common sense guesses and did not roll up their sleeves to dig into the dirt to study earthworms or cut open dead bodies to study inner organs, wild speculation of the unseen part of nature resulted.  Common sense, intuition, reasonableness and the pursuit of harmony may be ideal for understanding humanity and settling human disputes but they are inadequate for determining the locations of our internal organs or understanding the life-cycle of earthworms.  Canonical knowledge from antiquity located the heart in the middle of the body (“symmetry”).  In the 1700’s, Jesuit missionaries first arrived in China bringing with them the latest anatomy books from Europe showing the heart to be on the left side of the chest cavity. Common sense led Chinese scholars to conclude that since Europeans look different (“inferior”) externally, they must also have defective placement of their internal organs, which they intuit gave rise to their different religion.  It was thought then that if the Jesuits succeeded in converting any Chinese to their religion, it must be because these converts have hearts on the left side like the Europeans and thus defective as Chinese.  The Chinese scholars of the day pitied the Jesuits for not knowing that they were only converting defective Chinese!  One can conclude that it must have been beneath the dignity of a scholar to hold his hand to the left side of his chest to feel for palpitation – that would be manual labor.

“But.. but.. but.. TCM does work sometimes..” I hear my detractors protest.  Well, yes it does – sometimes.  And here I am going to invoke the “it’s-been-around-N-thousand-years” defense.  TCM could possibly work sometimes (rarely) for the same reason that if you give a blind archer enough arrows and enough time (thousands of year?) it is not unreasonable to expect that he may hit a target or even a bulls-eye.  Would you trust your health and well being of yourself and your family to dumb luck and random chance?  Consider the fact that in its long history, and in spite of their professed love of children, the Chinese never developed a branch of medicine to take care of children.  When the prevailing unscientific common sense wisdom was that babies were just smaller version of regular people and cannot be that different in their medical needs there is no need for a specialty of pediatrics.  Thus terms for distinct periods of childhood development like “adolescent” and “puberty” are absent from traditional Chinese medical vocabulary.

Next week, I will continue in Part II to relate some personal experience I have with TCM while growing up and how TCM must be accompanied by a heavy dose of superstition to work properly.  That the foundation of TCM is utterly unscientific is obvious to those of us who grew up with it and later discover science and the scientific method.  In modern times some efforts have been made to subject many TCM herbs and modalities to vigorous testing for efficacy and side-effects. A lot of these efforts were undertaken by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in their quest to promote TCM along side Western evidence-base medicine.  I will also comment on some of these efforts and why they are so politically sensitive about the subject.  Of the thousands of herbs commonly prescribed by “modern” TCM herbalists, a few have been found to actually do something.  The blind archer may have grazed the target a few times!  Modalities like acupuncture to treat various ailments from back pain to diabetes or “medical Qi-Gong” to treat cancer all turned out to be placebo at best. But yet TCM is making some headway in the U.S., for unfortunately in an increasingly scientifically ignorant society, the paucity of research-grade evidence is not a barrier for acceptance by the consumers as long as there are enough personal anecdotes in the form of “satisfied customer” testimonies.

52 Responses to “The Tao of Chinese Medicine – I”

  1. Khin says:

    Thank you bloggers, than you web 2.0, thank you google toolbar. All I had wanted on a Sunday morning was to check my spelling of skeptic and behold, I fell through another hole!
    Wonderful indeed.

  2. Satish says:

    Your experiences mirror mine in another ancient civilization. We have ayurvedic medicine here which too is based on a flawed understanding of human anatomy but still attracts a wide number of believers.

    • JesusG says:

      not really, Ayurvedic medicine, like all homeopathy arts in the world that follow the ancient traditions, believes that in order to find good mental, physical. and spiritual health in our lives we must look within our lifestyle instead of looking for things outside of us like drugs, sex, money, etc. Homeopathy is also a philosophy too, remember that.

  3. ejdalise says:

    Excellent reading. Looking forward to Part II.

  4. Alex West says:

    Great article, except perhaps for the Chinese transliteration – “Kung Zhi” for “Kong Zi” and “Lao Zhi” for “Lao Zi”. No matter.
    I lived in Taiwan for a long while, I’m studying Chinese and I’ve spent a lot of time in Asia. And frustrated as I am by all of the woo in Taiwan and amongst my Chinese friends, I, as a European, can’t speak out against it without feeling that I am going to be taken as a typical example of western cultural bias. I try to explain that so-called “western medicine” is really just modern medicine, that numerous cures have been developed in China, Thailand, Japan, etc, and have used ingredients from Chinese cures, dispensing with those things that aren’t actually useful. But how can I do that, when the emotional connection to the TCM aesthetic is so strong? So it’s nice to see someone trying to tackle it from the inside – at least, as a member of an overseas Chinese community.
    Can’t wait for part II.

  5. If you ever find yourself in Hong Kong for a day or two, take a stroll through Sheung Wan or the Western District. Whether or not you’d consider the myriad dried animal and plant bits sold in store after store to have health benefits, it becomes clear that no one is too fussed about hygiene as the baskets of gecko on a stick or antler chunk is mere feet from bus exhaust and dripping aircons. Regardless, it is a far more interesting way to spend the day than going to HK Disneyland.

    And if you can make it to the Chinese funerary shops, the stuff you can get and burn for dead loved ones is extraordinary. Quite the adventure in culture.

  6. Andrew says:

    Great work. It’s really interesting to read this from an insiders perspective, someone who understands the cultural context.

    Looking forward to more.

  7. Militant Agnostic says:

    There is one aspect of harm caused by TCM that is convienently ignored by it’s new agey supporters. TCM threatens many endangered species. A few years ago there was a proposal to saw off the horns of wild rhinoceroses and replace them with fiberglass prosthesis to make them worthless to poachers. Recently a Siberian Tiger in a zoo was killed for it’s paws. Anyone patronizing a TCM practitioner is indirectly supporting this poaching.

    Another issue is the likelyhood of deliberate contamination. Remember the pet food that killed several cats and dogs because a Chinese supplier deliberately added a toxic substance (melamine) to fool a protein assay. More recently the same thing was done to watered down milk in baby formula in China resulting in a lot of sick babies and a few deaths. Steven Novella blogged about the case of a truck driver in Alberta who was killed when he drove off the road. He was taking a TCM herbal preparation for insomnia that contained a benzodiazapene that is not approved in Canada or the USA. I have taken a TCM herbal preparation (recomended by an MD) several years ago, but now I ask myself “what was I thinking?”

    • JesusG says:

      hey, “new age” is a recent orthodox Christian term. Stop slandering ideas that are not familiar with Western culture. Our culture needs to stop being so narrow-minded in opinions. The world is a much bigger place than just this “orthodoxy”. Why do you think that Western Medicine is so resistant to personal spiritual health, is it because of greed or maybe we are still too fanatically dogmatic that we still think that having a body is a sin and we need to control nature with man- made things like drugs.

  8. Luftritter says:

    Very interesting!
    Here in my country native american shaman herb remedies are (sadly) poor sick desperate people last hope…
    It’s terrible to watch this afflicted human beings lose not just their money but part of the precious time they have left.

    I’m looking forward for the second part.

  9. [...] Yau-Man Chan discusses growing up with Chinese “medicine” [...]

  10. Andy says:

    Thank you for writing this article, it’s fascinating. I live in Bangkok, which has a large ethnic Chinese community. My Chinese Thai friends believe in that stuff so seriously that I can hardly dare put those things in to question without risking personal offense. Looking forward for Part II.

  11. Stuey says:

    isn’t this another example of meme gone “whoops”. I can remember as a kig my mother giving me boiled lemonade (think Sprite or Zup) when I was sick, and eventually I got better, miracle cure, now I think about it and it is a stupid think to give a child as it basically dehyrates, but it passes down the ages. Add a confusing back story and volia new medicine. And the sadest think around is that me government backed down to regulating these natural remedies and instead bought in a two tiered system.

  12. leo says:

    Good article except a mistake in the TCM relations between the 5 elements and the organs. These should be: kidney is water, liver is ‘wood’, stomach is ‘earth’, lungs are metal and heart is ‘fire’.

  13. Ken Baker says:

    When my kids were young I used to tell them that when you are waiting for an elevator you make it come by tapping your foot. If the elevator is slow you my have to pat your head as well. Eventually the elevator comes so, naturally, you conclude that tapping your foot and patting your head was effective.

    I knew a woman who always wore crystals on a necklace. She said it helped her body fight off illnesses and recovery from minor injuries. I asked if she was ever able to fight off illnesses or recover from injuries before she started wearing the crystals. Her answer? “Yes, of course.”

    People usually recover from illnesses by virtue of their body’s natural defenses, but to the nonscientific mind it seems natural to credit the recovery to whatever quackery you administered.

  14. Mrs. Grackle says:

    I have a Chinese co-worker who once remarked on the photo of my brother I had in my office. When I told her he had died just a few years before, of cancer, she smiled and said, “Oh, I wish I had known. I could have told you all about Chinese medicine because cancer is actually quite curable.” ! I nearly tossed her out of my office! That’s when I was living in San Francisco and working just a couple of blocks from Chinatown. Believe me: You don’t have to go to Hong Kong to see the dried animal bits (or wholes!) in baskets on the street. People in SF really go for that crap.

  15. B Wilson says:

    Reading all these comments reminds me of the difference between the way Western medicine and TCM handle a cold. Using Western medicine, a cold can last for seven days. Using TCM, you could be cured in a week!

    • JesusG says:

      that’s because Western Medicine (allopathic medicine) studies sicknesses and “dis-eases” and uses dangerous drugs to treat them, not nutrition; were-as Chinese Medicine studies the whole person’s lifestyle (emotions, body, mind, spirit) usually resulting in learning proper nutrition, instead of studying faceless sicknesses and diseases to be at ease with the whole person instead of being dis-ease. Chinese Medicine has very close parallels with homeopathy then Western Medicine.

  16. Dr. T says:

    “I will leave you to your imagination to associate our five orifices with the five elements!”

    How does TCM handle the sixth orifice of women? Or is it just ignored?

  17. Mrs. Grackle,

    True, but the air in SF is markedly cleaner than the air in HK and the food supply isn’t so tainted … a few years ago, it was found that Chinese farmers were feeding a carcinogenic food dye to ducks to make their egg yolks more red, because it can command a higher price among locals who believe they are healthier for you. We’ve since moved.

  18. jimboforreason says:

    Great article Mr. Chan. My family and I were huge fans of Survivor(we live in London, England now and don’t get the show here) and watched you almost win it (so much for loyalty). As a former outdoor sports educator, I loved the way the show breaks people down to their basic character. To know who someone truly is, put them on the end of a rope, or in a canoe for 3 days, or in a cave, or in a driving rain storm, or make them stand on a skinny pole for hours (I’m sure you won’t ever want to do that again). Yes, the supplament industry in the US is a travesty. Looking forward to part 2

  19. Shahar Lubin says:

    Intersting variation on Head ON!!! here in SaPa in northern Vietnam.
    To combat headaches they take the horn of a water buffalo, fill it with hot coals and apply to the forehead.
    Great for kids I would think. “That will teach you to complain about headaches!”

  20. Tom Maydon says:

    I’ve been living in Beijing for a year and have many times come across and spoken about TCM. Whereas TCM is refered to as “Chinese Medicine”, it should also be noted that Science-Based Medicine is referred to as “Western Medicine” (just as “Chinese Food” is differentiated from “Western Food”). What I have come to realise is that the belief in TCM has a lot to do about cultural identity too.

    During a recent Spaceflight (China’s first space-walk), it was written in many papers that the Chinese astronauts were all given personal packs of TCM herbs to assist them with the ill-effects of the flight. This story appeared alongside another that spoke of the Chinese-made spacesuits and the Chinese food that the astronauts were to eat.

  21. ryan says:

    Thanks for the opinionated article, however, you are not really qualified to write about tcm.
    First of all, daoism and confucianism are not the basis of tcm. Have you heard of the “Huang Di Nei Jing”? It is one of the basis of tcm theory. In it, they talk about Yin/Yang, the anatomy of the body, the 5 element theory, meridians, herbs, etc.
    Then, there is the “Nan Jing” which was written about 1000 years ago. In this book, they have actually weighed and measured the internal organs……..about 500 years before the fundamentals of western medicine were conceived.
    Simply because you grew up in a household in which you were treated with tcm herbs hardly makes you well informed about it. I have lived in China for 2 years and have met countless people who think they know something about herbs, but when asked about them in detail, they really know nothing, even though they were also treated with herbs while growing up.
    You need to do some real study my friend. Leave the instruction to people who know what they are talking about.

  22. al says:

    i agree with ryan: taoists and confucian probably didn’t invent TCM. i respect chan’s background and knowledge but what he actually debunks contains only a portion of TCM, which is not widely supported or applied universally in Chinese communities. As any controversial theory, there are tenable arguments as well as weak ones in it, so putting TCM as a whole up to opprobrium is not a fair act.

  23. [...] THE TAO OF CHINESE MEDICINE – I [...]

  24. Sean Barkes says:

    A very interesting article. From the excellence of the English, it seems that you must have been born and brought up in the West. If not, I wished that I had a command of a second language in the way you have :)
    I am left with one gaping question though: why does the Chinese goverment, leading the fastest growing economy and superpower on earth, continue to invest billions of Yuan in TCM? Is your lack of formal training in TCM, or maybe the eternal tendancy of humans to think that the grass is always greener on the other side, allowing you to miss something?

  25. Raoul says:

    I am reminded by the old adage that if all you have is a hammer then all you look for is nail.
    If all you have is a western , neutonian, mechanistic view of health then all you will look for is the same in treatment of whatever health problem you seek to address.
    Chinese Medicine is a complex ‘poetic science’ that comes from an entirley diferent paradym from western thinking.
    Just because you grew up in a chinese household does not make you qualified to comment on a medicine that requires practitioners to undergo 4 year bachelor degrees to practice.
    This is very bad example of the Halo effect being applied.
    If you dont know what that is then i suggest you look it up and comment on things you are qualified to comment on.

    • JesusG says:

      To me, Chinese Medicine is a NOT science in the western sense, it’s more of a philosophy. Western science is more of a belief system because of you gotta “learn science” instead of applying it to everyday life. Western science believes that all living things are just “chemical stuff” and we don’t have a soul or spirit in this life while Chinese Medicine does believe in living things having a soul.

  26. Krovak says:

    All you wrote looks nice, but when you look at the modern research, you will see that they sometimes “discover” things that can be easily explained by TCM or are basic part of that. But I know, TCM is pseudosicence – totally useles.
    Second: killing endangered species – even TCM progresses and recipes used in 15th century are not the sames as today. For example Militant Agnostic mentioned rhinoceros horn (XI YIAO) – it still figures in recipes, but it is replaced with horn of water buffalo which has similar properties. And also other problematic “herbs” are replaced in such way with it’s equivalents.
    Thirdly: Of superiority of the “western medicine”. Here in Slovakia former president became “sick” – perforation of large intestine, he was sucessfully operated and saved (western medicine of course). In few days also pneumonia join his troubles. When his doctor was asked wheter this two ilnesses can be conected somehow he said: “medical science does not know any connection between large intestine and lungs!” OK, the chinese “pseudoscience” knows that merely few thousand years :-P
    Both of this medicines are good for some purposes – chinese is more about prevention, slower and more subtle effects and western medicine is unmatched in traumatology, chirurgy and so on. Your experiences are mostly based on “old mums medicine” more than serious TCM.

  27. jazbo8 says:

    I hope you are not being serious ;-} – “serious TCM” is an oxymoron. At best, some TCM treatments may “work” due to the placebo effect, at worst, they kill the patient. More can be found in Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst’s Trick Or Treatment?: Alternative Medicine on Trial.

  28. taoYEN says:

    TCM used an unsound system to develop cures. Sometimes those cures work. As people have already pointed out with many, MANY simple examples, this does not validate the unsound system used to create them. The fact that unscientific research leads to a conclusion that scientific research later explains does not mean the unscientific research is any less useless. When Newton formed the laws of gravity, it didn’t matter that monkeys had already known that apples fell from trees, or that ancient civilizations had attributed it to the sun god etc. He discovered the scientific reason why the apple falls. All they had done is observed that the apple fell, and made up a nonsense explanation. Just as TCM observes that a very small percentage of their trial and error medicines work, and then make up a nonsense explanation as to why it works, then working backwards, defending their explanation by saying ‘but look, it works! so our ki energy, yin yang bullcrap must be true!’


  29. Dabizi says:

    Great articles – I lived in China for two years and one fall I got a cold (gan mao?) so, in the spirit of science I tried the TCM cure.

    I really just got worse, though I don’t think the TCM is as fault as the cold just got worse and the TCM did not really do anything. When I told my Chinese coworkers and students their response was “foreigners must be different”.

  30. Sean says:

    Dear Yau-Man,

    This a great article. I have lived in China for over 3 years and sometimes find my skepticism for TCM is seen by my Chinese friends as an ‘inability to really understand China or Chinese people’. This is frustrating when I try my best to learn Chinese and immerse myself in Chinese culture. When I see friends choosing TCM over western evidence-based medicine, my concerns are misconstrued as being anti-Chinese. I love China and want to understand it better but my skepticism is often greeted with a bit of hostility.

    My question is; are there any websites IN CHINESE that are skeptical of Chinese medicine. These would be good to forward onto Chinese friends. No-one is going to change their life-long (indoctrinated?) opinion overnight, but at least it may plant the seeds of change. Thanks

  31. ADH says:

    I teach English at a medical school in China. One that teaches “western” medicine and is supposed to be one of the better universities in the province. I can not tell you how disappointed I am when I hear these kids talk about how great Chinese medicine is and how “western” drugs are “too strong.”

    Or how about this one; the “western” medicine works faster but is dangerous; the TCM is slower but is safer. Maybe it’s slower because the immune system builds up antibodies and heals itself, reguardless if you take the TCM or not?

    And why the hell are these kids calling it western medicine still? What about western physics and western chemistry?

    And I noticed a few posts by people who seem to disagree with this author. These people, 99.9999% of the time, have never bothered to study chemistry of molecular biology, probably because they are either not very smart or are just lazy. They decide it’s easier to just be against what is difficult and go for what is easy. Basically they are idiots and losers.

    You may notice we have lots of Indian doctors in America, but no Chinese ones. Why? Because educated Indians, just like educated Europeans, South Americans, etc., know that their traditional (old way) of medicine is nonsense. But the educated Chinese……., well, their government is just much better at brainwashing I guess.

    • Krovak says:

      emm… you said you teach english – what is your knowledge of chemistry and molecular biology when you judge others? And why do I need to know them when I’m for example cold? Do you think that most of western doctors uses molecular biology in his practice?
      Yes educated people knows that traditional medicine is nonsense. Usually until the time when western medicine does not have answers and some alternative helps.

  32. Justin says:

    The author and the commenters have no clue what they are talking about. You’re all so busy being a “skeptic” and ask for credential/hard science, you don’t realize that none you have it either. Whatever the spiritual justification behind TCM, I suspect it was still developed from trial and experimentation as over generations, people do actually stumble upon ingredients in nature with real pharmaceutical qualities and decided to report antidotely postive results. For example, Asprin–> salicylic acid –>bark of willow trees Taxol –> Paclitaxel –> Pacific Yew tree. China being the wonderful country that it is (fuck you ADH) has a long enough written history where this kind of qualitative selection biases can be passed on and taught into a system of working medicine.

    Want proof?
    here is the clincher. Peer reviewed journal articles studying the effect of ingredients found in TCM on specific disease targets.

    S.P. Wasser, Medicinal mushrooms as a source of antitumor and immunomodulating polysaccharides, Appl. Microbiol. Biotechnol 60 (2002), pp. 258–274.
    SchaefferDJ, KrylovVS (2000) Anti-HIV activity of extracts and compounds from algae and Cyanobacteria. Ecotoxicol Environ Saf 45:208–227
    N. Ohno, M. Furukawa, N.N. Miura, Y. Adachi, M. Motoi and T. Yadomae, Antitumor β-glucan from the cultured fruit body of Agaricus blazei, Biol. Pharm. Bull 7 (2001), pp. 820–828.
    K.S. Sim, W.S. Sim, H.M. Kim, S.B. Han and I.H. Kim, Immunostimulating polysaccharide from cell culture of Angelica gigas Nakai, Biotechnol. Lett 20 (1998), pp. 5–7.
    K.S. Zhao, C. Mancini and G. Doria, Enhancement of the immune response in mice by Astragalus membranaceus extracts, Immunopharmacology 20 (1990), pp. 225–234.
    M. Liu, J. Li, F. Kong, J. Lin and Y. Gao, Induction of immunomodulating cytokines by a new polysaccharide–peptide complex from culture mycelis of Lentinus edodes, Immunopharmacology 40 (1998), pp. 187–198.
    Y. Gao, S. Zhou, W.Q. Jiang, M. Huang and X. Dai, Effects of Ganopoly (A Ganoderma lucidum polysaccharide extract) on the immune functions in advanced-stage cancer patients, Immunol. Invest 3 (2003), pp. 201–215.
    S.B. Han, Y.D. Yoon, H.J. Ahn, H.S. Lee, C.W. Lee, W.K. Yoon, S.K. Park and H.M. Kim, Toll-like receptor-mediated activation of B cells and macrophages by polysaccharide isolated from cell culture of Acanthopanax senticosus, Int. Immunopharmacol 3 (2003), pp. 1301–1312.
    S.B. Han, S.K. Park, H.J. Ahn, Y.D. Yoon, Y.H. Kim, J.J. Lee, K.H. Lee, J.S. Moon, H.C. Kim and H.M. Kim, Characterization of B cell membrane receptors of polysaccharide isolated from the root of Acanthopanax koreanum, Int. Immunopharmacol 3 (2003), pp. 683–691.

    This is just from doing a quick google search and every paper here was started to study the KNOWN effects of traditional medicine ingredients and EVERY paper here is published in a well recognized international peer-reviewed journal.

    my general background is fourth year of a Pharmaceutical Chemistry major at University of Toronto.

  33. Scott says:

    “China being the wonderful country that it is (fu– you ADH) has a long enough written history where this kind of qualitative selection biases can be passed on and taught into a system of working medicine…

    …my general background is fourth year of a Pharmaceutical Chemistry major at University of Toronto.”

    Well perhaps.

    I fear however that you are ignoring the distorting effects of human psychological biases when TCM was developed in the manner outlined by yourself above.

    For instance:-

    Confirmation bias – the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.

    Illusion of control – the tendency to believe that outcomes can be controlled, or at least influenced, when they clearly cannot.

    Outcome bias – the tendency to judge a decision by its eventual outcome instead of based on the quality of the decision at the time it was made.

    Selective perception – the tendency for expectations to affect perception.

    Expectation bias – the tendency for experimenters to believe, certify, and publish data that agree with their expectations for the outcome of an experiment, and to disbelieve, discard, or downgrade the corresponding weightings for data that appear to conflict with those expectations

    Bandwagon effect – the tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same

    Clustering illusion – the tendency to see patterns where actually none exist.

    Mere exposure effect – the tendency to express undue liking for things merely because of familiarity with them.

    Belief bias – an effect where someone’s evaluation of the logical strength of an argument is biased by the believability of the conclusion.

    Hindsight bias – sometimes called the “I-knew-it-all-along” effect, the tendency to see past events as being predictable.

    Illusory correlation – beliefs that inaccurately suppose a relationship between a certain type of action and an effect

    Recency effect – the tendency to weigh recent events more than earlier events

    All of these effects can individually prevent the selection of effective TCM remedies over ineffective and even potentially dangerous TCM remedies.

    Cumulatively, over a long period of time, these biases accumulate to render TCM no more than a hit or miss affair propped up by nothing more than superstition.

    There is no substitute for empirical studies.

  34. Raoul says:

    If traditional medicines don’t work then how did both China and India sustain vastly larger populations than the West throughout recorded history. Whilst epidemics periodically swept both Eastern and Western nations the distinguishing factor that ensured Eastern peoples suffered less mortality and could sustain larger civilizations was the very traditional medicine systems most people here dismiss.
    No branch of medicine has all the answers. I thank God for Western medicine and Chinese medicine. Through experience I now choose from either according to my needs because they both have strengths and weaknesses.
    If people want to close their minds to alternatives thats their choice. If others want to embrace them thats theirs.

    • Max says:

      Traditional Western medicine wasn’t better than traditional Eastern medicine, but modern science-based Western medicine is better than both.

      The Black Plague started in China, and killed about half the population in both Europe and China.

    • Chris.k says:

      “If traditional medicines don’t work then how did both China and India sustain vastly larger populations than the West throughout recorded history. ”

      They didn’t.
      You seem to be confused about how many people have lived in any given place at any particular time.

      Healthcare is only one component of a large population and until relatively recently , it was a minor one too.
      Good health only translates into longevity from a statistical standpoint. That means that people are counted in the population for a longer period of time.

      100 years ago Western Europe accounted for a quarter of the world’s population. You have apparently forgotten that there are about 600-700 people of Western European extraction living around the world. Further , European culture and people certainly don’t cease to exist on the other side of the Mediteranean , the Danube , or the Black Sea. Europe , in other words , goes much , much further than your average global map would seem to indicate.

      You may also have noticed the the poorest , most illiterate nations of the world also happen to have the highest growth rates. So , ironically enough , when you break it down , you’ve actually managed to argue against yourself.

  35. Raoul says:

    Its true epidemic disease killed many people in China and Europe. But the efficacy of diagnosis and treatment in China, not just for epidemic disease but disease in general, enabled the growth of larger populations and ultimately kept more people alive. My point being that more than superstition, placebo or chance was at work here. TCM is a ancient Eastern healing art that has much to offer the modern Western world.
    It can be used to actively treat disease but in divergence from the West it has an equally important focus on health preservation,in order to ‘treat disease before it arises’.
    In the west we have a disease focused model and a very effective one at that. Western Medicine is the treatment of choice for trauma and advanced iillness
    The Traditional Chinese Medical system focuses on health maintenance, preservation as well as treatment. This is where the ideas of Yin and Yang , holistic concept , the 5 elements come in.
    They help describe the characteristics of any phenomena and provide the uniting matrix that allows one to see how everything is connected. They are a framework that enables a practitioner to discern clinically significant imbalances that have lead to disease and then treat it in the individual by essentially restoring harmony.
    In a world such as ours where imbalance and divergence from the natural order are considered “normal” TCM can provide a framework for living a healthier happier and longer life.

    • WLU says:

      The country of China has a very, very thick layer of alluvial soil built up over millions of years of geological activity and erosion, as well as several very large rivers (five of ‘em, just like there are five organs, five elements, five orifices, etc – it’s all symbolic). How did China build up such a large population? Food. Lots and lots of food in a country that had the transportation infrastructure to move it around.

  36. John Roumeliotis says:

    For Eastern or Western medicine “There is no substitute for empirical studies”.

    So, irregardless what side of the ocean you live on, do your homework because,a quack is a quack is a quack.

  37. Dave says:

    To those of you who claim that TCM helps to prevent and Western medicine only treats symptoms.

    I think ideas that the Chinese labeled fancily as “medicine” could be regarded as common sense in the 21st century. TCM says things like: sleep enough, eat moderately, avoid stress, exercise. We don’t need to explain these things with Chi to understand why they are good for us.

    So I think that you just miss the fact that we don’t call these common sense ideas “medicine” anymore. Don’t know about where you live, but here in Estonia, we have commercials in TVs and public transport telling you to eat your vegetables. In schools we are told how important it is to do sports.

    So just because your doctors or the pharmaceutical companies (capitalism, I know it’s bad in a way, but still), i.e the ones specialized in medicine, won’t tell you how to avoid getting ill in the first place, it doesn’t mean that Western medicine is bad. Of course it has its own problems, but since it’s heavily evidence-based, we have a way of improving it. TCM is, however, tradition.

    Happy holidays!

    • WLU says:

      …versus the evidence-based recommendations of modern medicine which are…get enough sleep, eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, avoid stress and exercise? This has been known for millions of years, by pretty much every culture out there. Knowing what to do to stay healthy in the absence of major trauma and infectious disease is a very different thing from knowing what to do in the case of acute spear through the belly or meningitis. If you seriously have a doctor who doesn’t tell you to exercise, get enough sleep, eat fruits and vegetables and maintain a healthy weight (and measure your waist circumference, check your blood pressure and cholesterol – three empirical innovations not found in TCM), you need to change doctors – and probably report your current doctor to some sort of medical board for malpractice.

  38. alterEgo says:

    Great article! Very interesting read. I absolutely agree especially with this To understand TCM, you do not need to understand chemistry, biology, anatomy or physiology because the foundation of TCM has nothing to do with them. You need instead to understand Taoism and Confucianism, as these philosophies are the founding principles of TCM

    Thank you author!

  39. Kinderling says:

    Thank you!

    I had wondered why the most intelligent people on the planet had succumbed to Dynasties, Death-Cult Christianity and Communism to the deaths of millions of people.


    The trio of Tao, Confucius, Bhuddism; of father, mother and child. Absent of reason, justice or compassion. A weak and sick family.

    You may have heard of the recent family that moved to the West: Anglicanism, Socialism and mimicking sex. Absent of reason, justice or love.

  40. Edgardo Caceres says:

    As an MD, linguist and practitioner of medical acupuncture for 40 years i have several comments. I agree that the concepts in TCM and acupuncture originated 2500 years ago will not pass the scientific test; that does not imply that the fundamentals behind acupuncture are wrong; it is just that the explanations given those many years ago are soaked in magical terms. In present day explanations of the reasons behind acupuncture effects, very mild electric currents play a key role, which explains its fickleness and extreme variability. Mr Chan’s argument that he grew up in it as sufficient background is flawed, because his knowledge of chinese language shows it (ying-yang, Lao Zhi)