By Catherine Ayscue
Traditional Chinese medicine, with all its superstitions and ritualistic methods, may seem closer to magic than medicine—but it actually involves much more care and careful study than outsiders realize.
In fact, Chinese medicine is adapting to suit modern society.
Many students at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine believe Chinese and western medicine can be successfully combined, to the benefit of practitioners and patients. They are taught both methods, and can specialize in aspects traditional or western practice as they further their studies.
Chinese medicine teaches that every part of the body is connected. The cure for a headache might be pinching a nerve in the thumb, breathing difficulty could be related to back problems.
“I have friends who study western medicine,” says Jiang Yaoyu, second year student at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine. “They study the heart, or the bones, or the head. Chinese medicine believes the body is a system, and shouldn’t be divided into different parts.”
Even at the most basic level traditional Chinese medicine tends toward the holistic. Medical students are taught to take a wrist pulse on each arm using three fingers; originally the index finger corresponded to the heart, the middle to the liver, the ring to the kidneys. This technique is still used today, but it is acknowledged that the fingers don’t correspond to particular organs.
“The standard for a healthy pulse is the same as in western medicine: in one breath you can feel four pulses… not too strong or too weak,” explains third year student Jhang Lin.
During the first two years Chinese medical students study basic anatomy, physiology and biology, and then learn traditional Chinese medicine, including massage and acupuncture. The third year covers western diagnostic skills. Five years of study earns a bachelor’s degree (with a license, students can begin practicing medicine at this stage); after three more years, the master’s is earned; a doctorate comes three years later, after a total eleven years of study. If a student receives exceptionally good marks on the college entrance exam, it is possible to earn a doctorate in as little as nine years.
American medical schools are typically four-year programs, following a bachelor’s degree earned in as little as three years. American doctors study a narrower section of medicine for a shorter amount of time, and rely on treating symptoms rather than diseases.
Differences remain in terminology, but at the core, western and Chinese medicine have the same purpose.
Qi is a concept unfamiliar to or misunderstood by many Westerners, but is essential to understanding traditional Chinese medicine.
Qi (pronounced “chi”) can be explained as a life force or motivation for every being’s actions. It is not scientifically measurable, but rather an intangible, internal energy that must be balanced to maintain health; yin and yang, cold and heat, dark and light—everything must be in moderation to be healthy.
Moderation is key to traditional Chinese medicine. Having too much or little of one thing can unbalance yin and yang, disrupting one’s qi and causing illness. Having too much heat in the liver can cause one to be angry; too much heat in the heart causes excitement or anxiety.
Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine believe even plants, food, drink and behaviors can increase or decrease heat and cold in one’s body. Menstruation is believed to be a loss of heat—therefore, women should avoid eating cold things at that time of month, or risk increasing yin while already losing yang.
There is also a distinction between dry and damp illness; if one is experiencing a dry cough, eating vegetation associated with dry or yang characteristics would be unhelpful. Nor should a hot fever be treated with a hot soup—chicken noodle, the favored cure among Americans, would be rejected by a believer in Chinese medicine.
Old beliefs about eating specific foods only at certain times of year, or sleeping and waking at a certain time, have been replaced with a mantra of moderation and keeping a consistent schedule—if you sleep at 1 A.M. and wake at 10 A.M. (very late by Chinese standards) it’s fine, so long as you do it every day. Meals can be taken at any time, so long as you balance food groups and eat at regular intervals.
This is completely compatible with western medicine.
Traditional Chinese medicine has been studied for such a short amount of time that there are no conclusive statements to be made about its effectiveness. But there are countless testimonies from those who have seen it at work.
Jiang Yaoyu wants to be a traditional doctor just as her grandfather and many of men in her family were. “This tradition should be carried, not let die,” she says. She believes modern technology has its place, “but for some people it’s not useful…. I have seen my grandfather cure people of serious illness. Even some cancer.”
There’s no magic here—perhaps less science than western society is used to, but maybe that is what western medicine needs: less impersonal, quantitative analysis, and more qualitative treatment. A carefully balanced marriage of the two methods. Yin and yang, working together.