Thursday, November 17, 2011


Traditional Chinese medicine, which has been developed and practiced throughout Chinese history, is based on the approach of Dao (the Way). Good health, according to Dao, requires living in harmony with the laws of nature.

In traditional China good health meant maintaining qi ()-  the life energy. The original meaning of the word () was "cooling steam".  With the passage of time, it became perceived also as the vital force of all living things, which helps the body to resist disease. From birth to death, the qi flows through energy pathways (meridians) in the body. Good health means that the qi is flowing freely without the blockage or stagnation that are caused by an imbalance between yin and yang; and flowing also among the five elements (wood, fire, metal, water and earth), from which the world was believed to be comprised.

The conception of an harmonious human body, like the conception of an harmonious society, is based on a model according to which morbidity results from disturbed or imbalanced qi. When balance is restored, all morbidities are cured. In early Chinese traditions, a balanced qi was achieved through meditation, which was believed to maintain good health and improve relationships. The uniqueness of meditation lies in creating harmony without speaking.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, illness can be caused by exaggeration. For example, overworking can weaken the yang energy and strengthen the yin energy. Disease can be caused by an imbalance among the five emotions. Thus, too much joy can cause a fast pulse rate, insomnia or fear; too much anger can cause blushing, hypochondria, headache, dizziness or loss of consciousness; too much grief can cause swallowing difficulties, weakness, restlessness or shortness of breath; and too much worry can cause digestive problems, diarrhea, anorexia or lack of appetite. Likewise, fear and terror can cause lack of sphincter control. Such excessive emotions help external forces, such as wind, cold, or heat, to attack the body.

The basic principles of Chinese traditional medicine were written as early as the 3rd  millennium BCE by the Yellow Emperor, in his Classic of Internal Medicine (nèi)(jīng). This book is the oldest text on Chinese medicine, probably compiled over a period of hundreds of years, beginning in the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BCE). It comprises two parts: the first -  Su Wen ()(wèn)(literally: the book of plain questions), deals with anatomy, physiology, pathology, diagnosis, prevention of disease, yin and yang, the five elements, treatments, and the connection between man and nature. The second, Ling Shu  (líng)(shū) , focuses on acupuncture - the insertion of fine needles into the body at specific points, in order to restore the balance between yin and yang in the diseased organ. It includes a description of the meridians, needle treatment techniques, different types of needles, and the location of 160 points of needle treatment. The needles were made of gold, silver, iron or other metal.

In traditional Chinese culture the human body is conceived of as a kind of microcosm. A condition of good health is associated with general harmony, whereas disease is associated with disharmony. The five most important organs - the heart, liver, spleen, lungs and kidneys, are governed by the five elements, which are respectively - fire, wood, earth, metal and water. The body is a system of interactions, which is why inserting a needle into one point on the body can balance an organ distant from this point.

During the Han (hàn)dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE) philosophers wrote that a healthy body functions in harmony with nature, and is prone to illness if not coordinated with it. After the Han dynasty, the practice of Dao included breathing exercises, which were intended to achieve immortality. Believing that breath (qi) is the power of life, the Daoists considered breath control as a means to maintain vitality and ensure longevity. Likewise, they occupied themselves with physical exercises that were considered to be healthy. Diet, too, was considered important for maintaining good health. Emphasis was placed on the abstention from harmful foods rather than on eating beneficial ones. Some avoided drinking wine and eating meat, while others avoided cereals, believing that these feed the worms in the body and cause disease, aging and death; whereas yet others thought that wine was healthy and did no harm.

Good health, according to traditional Chinese medicine, is a result of balance between the female principle (yin), represented by cold, and the male principle (yang) represented by heat. To cure a cold, one should use warming herbs such as ginger, pepper, and turmeric, in order to achieve balance. In southern China people like to eat meat and milk products, but because these are considered hot foods, they are avoided during the summer. Thus, to cure a high fever, it is recommended to eat foods that are considered cold, such as sprouted seeds, fruits, cucumber and tofu. All foods, (whether considered cold or hot) are heated (cooked) because cold foods (from the refrigerator) are considered harmful to the health.

Tradition is deep-rooted in present-day China. Drinking cold drinks and eating cold food are still considered to be harmful, which is why when asking for a glass of water in a restaurant in China, hot water will be served unless cold water is specified. Ice cream is nonetheless very popular in China, despite being considered "not healthy".  

Traditional Chinese medicine enables the immediate identification of diseases by checking the pulse. There are different kinds of pulses, each associated with a specific medical condition. The medicines are concocted from herbs, and sometimes substances derived from animals, including insects, are added.

A central characteristic of traditional Chinese medicine is that of refraining from surgery. An exceptional figure in the history of traditional Chinese medicine was Hua Tuo (huá)(tuó)(110-207 CE), the first Chinese surgeon, who promoted the science of anatomy. Despite his great knowledge of anesthetics he did not leave after him either texts or disciples to pass on his knowledge to future generations. Thus, following his death the use of anesthetics and surgery came to an end.

The practice of medicine was usually passed on from father to son. The prevalent belief was that a good doctor was one whose family had practiced medicine for several generations. A saying expressing this belief was that of "beware of taking medicines prescribed by a doctor whose family has not practiced medicine for three generations".

During the Song (sòng) dynasty (960-1279 CE) the medical profession became supervised by the state and only officially authorized physicians were allowed to practice medicine. The first medical school was established.

There were three kinds of physicians. The first group comprised the official doctors of the state, called "great doctors". These were members of the upper class who, in addition to being trained to practice traditional medicine, had studied medical texts and were tested on them. They would be called to the emperor's court whenever he or any of his high government officials became sick.

In the second group of physicians were those government officials who had studied medicine in their free time. Whenever a family member would fall ill they would help him at no charge, but with the expectation of receiving gifts on major holidays. 

To the third group of physicians belonged those who came from the lower class, and were typically from families of physicians. They often possessed books on medicine, preserved in the family and hidden away from competitors. They practiced medicine in small shops or on the street and received payment for their work.

Alongside these three types there were also the "barefoot physicians", who had taken courses in first aid, hygiene and medicine. These physicians worked in the field and would practice medicine after rolling up their trouser legs; hence their title.

As already mentioned, medicine and Daoism were interwoven. The Daoist God of Medicine is Yao Wang (yào)(wáng)(literally: king of herbal medicine), originally a mortal physician named Sun Simiao (sūn)()(miǎo)(581-682 CE), who was admitted to the Daoist pantheon after his death at the age of 101. His book, written in 30 volumes, includes his work experience and that of other physicians, from his own time and from earlier periods, covering fields such as herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage, gymnastics and breathing exercises.

A basic principle in traditional Chinese medicine is illustrated in the following story told by the Legalist philosopher Han Feizi  (hán)(fēi)() (280-233 BCE):

One day the court physician addressed the Duke and told him that he had noticed that he had a muscular disease. The Duke replied that he did not suffer from any medical problem. When the doctor left, the Duke said to his courtiers that physicians like to tend to healthy people and earn money from "curing" them. Ten days later, the doctor said to the Duke that his flesh was diseased, and that if he would not take care of it, his condition would worsen. Again, the Duke did not take his words seriously. After another ten days, the doctor arrived at the court once more, looked at the Duke, and left without saying a word. The Duke sent one of the courtiers after him to ask what had happened. The doctor replied, "As long as the muscles were damaged, it would have been possible to cure them by massage and hot bandages. When the sickness spread to the flesh, it would have been possible to cure it by acupuncture. As long as it was concentrated in the internal organs, it would have been possible to treat it with a heated metal rod. But now that the disease has reached the bones, no treatment will help". Five days later, the Duke called for the doctor's help, but the latter had fled.

The lesson of this story is that a skilled doctor attacks the disease in its early phase, when it can still easily be cured.



A thousand pieces of gold cannot buy one breath of life

Life is very precious and cannot be bought with money.

A medicine can cure a disease but cannot cure someone whose fate is doomed
A parallel idiom in Latin:
Contra malum mortis non est medicëmen in hortis
Literally: Against a lethal disease, there is no [herbal] medicine in the gardens.
People who are often ill, live a long life
Talking and laughing clear the head (literally: passes through the seven openings of the head)
Laughter is healthy.
[He who] laughs much, [will become] ten years younger; [he who] worries much (or is much angry), [will become] older and older 
The same idea is expressed in the idiom:

[He who] laughs much [will become] ten years younger [whereas] he who worries much, [his] hair will become white
He who smiles often will always be young

Much anger brings disease [whereas] hearty laughter instills vitality

Cure by food is better than cure by medicine
He whose arm has been broken thrice, becomes a good doctor
A long period of disease turns the patient into a good doctor.
Experience is a good teacher.
             The same idea is found in the idiom:
A chronic illness turns the patient into a good doctor
Revives the dead
Said of an excellent doctor.
This is based on the following story:
A long time ago there was a famous doctor named Bian Que (bian)(què) [1] who traveled around China collecting medicines for his patients. One day he heard that the Prince had suddenly died, and he asked a government official about the Prince's illness. Upon hearing the reply, he thought that the Prince might in fact be still alive, albeit suffering from a strange disease, and he asked the government official to relocate him to the capital city. Bian treated the Prince with acupuncture, but he did not respond. Eventually, however, after prescribing him a certain medication and hot compresses, the Prince was able to sit up. Before leaving, the doctor gave him 20 portions of the medicine and, after a few days, the Prince had completely recovered.
Literally: It is easy to get many drug prescriptions, [but] hard to find an efficient one.
Every problem has its own solution and there is no one fixed prescription good for every problem.
Literally: When the conscience is clear (or without worries),
the body becomes fat[2]
A clear conscience and lack of worries contribute to good health.
Disease comes like galloping horses [but] leaves like walking
Disease appears suddenly, but it takes a long time to cure. 
The same idea is found in the idiom:
Disease comes [quickly] like a fall from a mountain, [but] leaves [slowly] like coiling silk
Literally: Experience in treating patients is preferable to reading the books of Wang Shu He.[3]
Experience is preferable to theoretical knowledge.
Literally: When the head aches, cure the head [and] when the foot aches, cure the foot.
  Treating the aching organ without finding the root of the problem.
Doing things superficially.
The literal significance of this idiom represents an approach that does not reflect traditional Chinese medicine, which treats the body as a complete unit that should be brought into balance. Every disease is conceived of as violating the balance of the whole body rather than as a local problem.
Troubles must be prevented before they occur
  Literally: One healthy body is preferable to 10,000 strings of 1,000 coins of copper[4] in the house.
Health is preferable to wealth.
Diseases enter [the body] through the mouth [and] troubles come out of the mouth.
Diseases are usually caused by food or by the breathed air and troubles are often caused by the words issuing from the mouth.
  Anger harms the liver

[1] Bian Que (401-310 BCE) was a doctor during the Warring States period (475-221 BCE), to whom was ascribed much knowledge in medicine. Like Hippocrates in the West, he introduced the framework for a physician's ethical behavior and for establishing respect for the medical profession. 
[2] In traditional China, fat people were considered healthy.
[3] Wang Shu He was a famous doctor (201-280 CE) who wrote about various diseases - their cures and diagnoses, through classification of pulses such as fast, slow, strong, weak, heavy, light, etc. His book served as basic study material for every physician.
[4] During the Imperial period, "guan" (guàn)signified "a string of 1,000 coins of copper" or "cash".

Literally: A small medicine [can] cure a big illness.
A simple medicine [can] cure a serious illness.
Simple medicines are sometimes more efficient than complicated ones.
Simple solutions are sometimes more efficient than complicated ones.
The same idea is revealed in the idiom:
Literally: Secret prescriptions [can] cure serious diseases.
Folk remedies sometimes cure serious diseases.
Simple solutions can be more efficient than complicated ones.



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