Traditional Chinese Medicine: An exercise in balance

Travel | by James Weir
Posted: October 20th, 2011 | Updated: April 24th, 2012 | Comments
China history, China dynasties yin yang He's that guy you love to run into at the Forbidden City or out hiking the Great Wall, full of nuggets of fascinating information and anecdotes collected magpie-like and retained in his encyclopedic brainhe's the one who told me about the Lady of Lugu Lake and the secret behind Chinese false gates. In an effort to channel some of that wisdom we'll be working our way, in no particular order, through a few of the captivating characters and entrancing tales of China's long and illustrious history so next time, you can be the one to say: "Did you know.... " >>> My mother always told me to practice moderation in all things. When I was a child, it was easy to interpret such a statement: don't watch too much television, stop eating candy by the handful, do more homework, spend more time with your grandmother and less time skateboarding with the hooligans, that sort of thing. As I've gotten older, I've begun to understand it with more subtlety, and now I think of it less in terms of moderation and more in terms of balance. If it were simply a matter of moderation, I would work less ('Forty hours? What are you, crazy?'), drink more scotch ('I drink more than 120 ounces of water every day, what possible impact could 12 ounces of Macallan 10 year have on that?'), smoke more cigarettes ('I'm breathing fresh air, like, almost all the time!') and so on. But I'm understanding more and more what my mother was trying to tell me all those years ago: living a good life is about priorities and balance, both in your body and in your mind. Traditional Chinese Medicine (or TCM for short), rooted in thousands of years of philosophy, herbal medicine, acupuncture, dietary regimes and age old lore, seems to be more than anything a foray into balance.

Ancient origins of TCM

As with all things thousands of years old, the true beginnings of Traditional Chinese Medicine are murky. One thing that most seem to agree upon, though, is that the oldest (and best) aggregator of Chinese medical lore available today is the Huangdi Neijing (Huángdì Nèijīng, 黄帝内经). Translated variously as The Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon and The Inner Canon of Huangdi (among others), the document dates back at least 2,000 years. The book is written as a series of questions and answers (penned by numerous unknown authors over hundreds of years), with the legendary Yellow Emperor providing answers and insight into living a healthy lifestyle and overcoming disease. Traditional Chinese medicine The Huangdi Neijing considers the human body a mirror that reflects the greater interaction of life on earth. As in nature, there are positive and negative forces at work at all times within the body, and it is only through balance that life can flourish. In a departure from shamanism, the text argues that disease comes not from spirits, but from a wide range of internal and external forces, both tangible (like your diet) and intangible (the imbalance of energy in your body).

Parts of a whole

The first section of the work, the Suwen (Sùwèn, 素问), covers basic diagnostic methods and lays the foundation of what we today know as Traditional Chinese Medicine, and the second part, the Lingshu (Língshū, 灵枢), focuses on acupuncture methodology. The concept of yin yang (yīn yáng, 阴阳) is ancient and broad, and the idea of contrary yet interconnected forces is a driving ideology in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The Five Phases (Wǔ​ Xíng, 五行), is a way of understanding interactions in the body, on earth and even in the way the celestial heavens are organized. According to the Wu Xing, everything is cyclical; decay engenders rebirth, and one cannot exist without the other. Think of charred, dead trees in the aftermath of a massive, destructive forest fire; the craggy, ashen remains of life destroyed will in time enrich the soil and feed the next generation of growth. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the concepts of yin yang and Wu Xing are integral in the understanding of zang fu (zàng fǔ, 脏腑). Every organ is either yin (zàng) or yang (), and is paired with another from the opposing classification, and corresponds to one of the Five Phases. Each organ is connected to a meridian (jīngluò, 经络), through which qi (, 气), a sort or energy or life force, flows. Disease is seen as an imbalance between any or all of these various factors; acupuncture, herbal medicine, exercise through martial arts and other traditional remedies seek to restore harmony within the body.

TCM and you

This is where intangible philosophies begin to clash with tangible physical realities. There is no anatomical evidence that meridians exist, and qi cannot be quantified by any tangible means. Furthermore, the zang fu interpretation of how our bodies work and our organs interact has no actual basis in human anatomy. Traditional Chinese medicine But that is not to say that any of the theories are wrong, and in fact, it would be difficult to argue that living a healthy, balanced life doesn't contribute to a stronger sense of well being and happiness. Not sleeping enough, eating poorly, working too hard at a high stress job, not exercising regularly and a whole litany of other factors are all ways to raise the risk of illness and unhappiness. And though there is no physical manifestation of qi or meridians, that doesn't mean that they don't exist. In this day and age, it is difficult to think of treating serious illnesses with Traditional Chinese Medicine without considering surgeries, antibiotics, chemotherapy and other treatments rooted in anatomical and chemical science. Faced with a metastasizing tumor, drinking herbal tea or undergoing acupuncture treatment seems an insignificant medical undertaking. The idea that our lives should be well balanced is age old and as relevant as ever. Traditional Chinese Medicine seems to be a call for a greater understanding of how we exist in this world, and how to interact with and manage the forces that allow us to exist and flourish. The rudimentary philosophies upon which Traditional Chinese Medicine is based have persisted for thousands of years for good reason; they appeal to balance, moderation and a humility in the face of the grandest forces in this world— life and death. Whether or not the specific treatments are the most effective (or are even effective at all) seems almost secondary in light of such a compelling philosophical argument. And, as with most things I've come to realize over the course of my life, it turns out my mother had it right all along. Most cities in China have plenty of shops selling traditional medicines as well as acupuncturists and TCM hospitals and doctors. Even many Westernstyle hospitals in China make use of TCM alongside more familiar Western medicines. Places like the Qingping Market in Guangzhou or Huqingyu Tang Chinese Medicine Museum in Hangzhou are good places to learn more. Have you had experience with TCM?  Tell us about it in our comments section.
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