Medicine in China today
Model ear showing acupuncture points, China or Japan, 1970-1985
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) began over 2000 years ago (the term is not widely used in China). From 1911 until 1949, Republican China tried to establish a modern state medical system based on Western biomedicine. The practice of TCM was discouraged. However, after the People’s Republic of China was formed in 1949, Chinese medicine was re-established as a national system of medicine. It helped reassert the value and authority of Chinese culture. By 1955 there were four Chinese medical colleges, and practice of Chinese medicine became institutionalised nationwide. It now forms part of the state-controlled health-care system in China.
Can Chinese medicine be integrated with biomedicine? Should it? There are no easy answers. Unlike biomedicine, Chinese medicine refers to ancient key texts for its theoretical framework. It has traditionally been an elite medical system - that is, a written tradition, used by the wealthy and educated.
An integrated medicine combining the best features of both systems was established in the 1920s. It is now popular again thanks to attempts to find a scientific basis for Chinese medicine. Today, practitioners in Chinese and Western medicine are given basic training in both traditions. There is overlap in the model of the body used in contemporary Chinese medicine with that used in biomedicine. For instance, acupuncture is commonly taught using figures which show the anatomy of the body, as well as the meridians. Physicians may combine traditional diagnosis using the pulse with X-rays and other technologies.
Many treatments in Chinese medicine make sense within both the biomedical model of the body and TCM ideas about the body. Artemisia is a good example. It is a plant traditionally used in treating symptoms such as fever, now globally used in treating malaria. Chinese therapies and practices which seem the most ‘scientific’ are often given prominence by the government, while others are sidelined as old-fashioned or quackery.
Developing the tradition
Practitioners in China may also use traditional medicine without justifying it scientifically. This does not mean the tradition is static. Many new practices and techniques have been adopted in Chinese medicine from other traditions. For instance, acupuncture is used for pain relief or analgesia during surgical procedures; scalp acupuncture and ear acupuncture are new techniques developed outside China, but now widely used in Chinese hospitals. Ear acupuncture is a good example of a hybrid technique. It was developed in France in the 1950s, but it relies on the European tradition of reflexology instead of biomedicine.
Related Themes and Topics
N Sivin, Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan, 1987)
E Hsu, ‘Innovations in acumoxa: acupuncture analgesia, scalp and ear acupuncture in the People's Republic of China’, Social Science and Medicine, 42 (1996), pp 421- 430
E Hsu, The Transmission of Chinese medicine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
E Hsu (ed.), Innovation in Chinese medicine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)
V Scheid, Chinese medicine in contemporary China: plurality and synthesis (North Carolina; London: Duke University Press, 2002)
The name given to the medical practice that is based on the sciences of the body, such as physiology (the functioning of the body).
A branch of medical science concerned with the structure of living organisms.
The main channels of energy flow (qi) in Chinese medicine. There are 12 meridians in total.
Pain-relieving drugs or medications.
A complementary practice based on the theory that reflex points in the feet are connected to the rest of the human body. Massage of these points is believed to unblock energy flows in the body that cause illness.