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  • Ben McCrary

Demystifying Chinese Medicine


In the western world we take pride in our intellectual accomplishments that have had a positive effect on advancing civilization. Our most shining accomplishment, the scientific method, has proven to be the pinnacle of sophistication in obtaining an accurate view of the world and how it works. However, this high level of sophistication in human thought did not come about overnight.


Advancements in human thought come about very slowly. While we often tend to take many, of what seem like simple ideas for granted, we also tend to dismiss anything that predates the sophistication of the scientific method.


In ancient Chinese thought, they were able to make great strides in human thought in their own right. While many other cultures in the ancient world had very superstitious worldviews, the Chinese were one of the first to base their worldview on observations of the world around them. While inferring ideas of the world from observation alone might not be as sophisticated as the scientific method, this was still a great leap in intellectual thought for humanity.


We often like to dismiss anything that predates the scientific method as unscientific because we take a lot of the components of the scientific method for granted. Like most leaps in human thought, each aspect of the scientific method had to take many years of development before such a deep and far reaching way of thinking could come about. One of these most basic components, observation, is at the foundation of ancient Chinese thought and Traditional Chinese Medicine.


Because of many stereotypes of Chinese culture, many of the fundamental tenants of Chinese Medicine, such as Yin and Yang Theory, Five Element Theory, and the concept of Qi (pronounced Chee) get an inaccurate view of being mystical or religious concepts. While many ancient Chinese religions incorporate many of these ideas in their religion, their root and application to Traditional Chinese Medicine are far from mystical. In fact, they are quite scientific, and have their basis on meticulous observation of the human body and the world.

First, we will look at two of the most basic ideas of Chinese Medicine Yin and Yang and Qi , and we will discover that these are not only scientific, they are way ahead of their time and have been able to accurately describe phenomena that have only recently to be explained through the scientific community.


Agriculture, rice farming in particular, was and is an integral part of Chinese civilization. Because this crop had such an impact on their culture, they had to make careful observation in order to yield a successful crop and ensure a thriving civilization. In doing so, the theory of Yin and Yang was developed. To better understand this concept, we must analyze the Chinese characters for Yin and Yang.


The character for Yin (陰) is composed of three parts,阝 means hill, 今means today, and 云means cloud. So a possible reading of this character is “Today, standing on a hill, the farmer notices that it is cloudy.” The character for Yang (陽) is also composed of three basic parts. 阝means hill, 日means sun, and 勿represents the rays of light from the sun. So, a possible reading of this character is “Today, standing on a hill, the farmer notices rays of light from the sun.”


These concepts were further illustrated in diagrams. Imagine you put a pole in the ground, during some parts of the day there will be a shadow and sometimes not. Yang is represented as a solid line (⚊), and Yin is represented as a broken line (⚋). While these form a foundation of the I-Ching (The Book of Changes), these diagrams, like the fundamental concept which they represent, are very simple. The solid Yang line represents pure Yang, in other words, the most Yang part of the day, noon, when the sun is overhead of our pole and no shadow is cast. Likewise, the broken Yin line represents anything other than pure Yang where a shadow is cast of our pole.


The ancient Chinese began to observe that these qualities existed everywhere in nature and in even in the human body! In summary, Yang qualities are light, heat, positive, outgoing movement, energy, insubstantiality, day time, summer time, masculine, etc. Yin qualities are darkness, cold, negative, inward movement, matter, substance, night time, winter time, feminine, etc. What’s more, they observed that these qualities were both mutually exclusive of each other, meaning both forces need the other. Also, that both these qualities can be observed in everything that exists in the Universe.


In anatomical terms, each person has yin and yang qualities at play in their bodies. For example, every person has a body, which is substantial, and Yin. Every person has a mind which you cannot grasp hold of, this is insubstantial and Yang. All the muscles in the human body also exhibit these Yin/Yang qualities. The principle actions of muscles are contraction and expansion. The movements created by these actions all have Yin and Yang qualities. Let’s look at a pair of muscles most of us are familiar with: the biceps and the triceps. You could consider the action of the biceps to be more Yin in nature because it draws your forearm inward closer to your body. On the other hand the triceps are more Yang in that they extend your arm outward. In western physiology the biceps are said to perform the action of flexion, and the triceps are said to perform the action of extension. It follows, that flexion is a Yin action and extension is a Yang action. It’s interesting to note that the parts of the body that contain flexor muscles also tend to be in areas where there are a lots of blood vessels. Blood vessels carry blood to all parts of the body for nourishment. Blood is seen as a Yin substance. In short, Anatomy in Traditional Chinese Medicine is more about classifying the body’s Yin and Yang qualities than actually structures and physiological functions.


Like Yin and Yang theory, the concept of Qi is also very misunderstood. It is often mystified by the martial arts community as a mysterious force with which you can knock out an opponent without touching them, kill someone with a single strike, or make yourself impervious to injury. This sensationalized view is not only inaccurate it completely misunderstands the entire concept.


Understanding Qi is always best understood by its Chinese character, 氣. It is composed of two parts. 气 means vapor and is also a pictograph of an oven, 米means rice. So in essence Qi could be defined as “the vapor released from rice in an oven.” You could think of Qi in this way: it is a broad word used to describe an energetic process. Many people in modern times say that Qi is the body’s electricity, but this definition is limiting. Biologically speaking it is a word that applies to every chemical reaction in your body, every energetic exchange, every active or passive biological event. Cellular metabolism is Qi. Every time an enzyme facilitates a reaction that is Qi. Every time ions move from one concentration gradient to a lesser concentration that is also Qi.


The ancient Chinese did not have such sophisticated vocabulary, as we do today, to understand the human body, so they used a very simple, yet elegant way to describe what they simply saw as energy, or Qi. They were able to use this model to describe many different phenomena. They recognized energetic processes in plants, food, the earth, the stars, and in weather patterns. The more knowledge we acquire from science the more we know about what is actually happening when the ancient Chinese talked about Qi. It was not intended to be some mystical force or supernatural power, just a way to describe energy. Looking at the Chinese language, you can see that they never intended Qi to be this way. For example to take offense to something you say “shengqi” 生气 to become Qi, weather is “tianqi” 天气, or heaven qi. The Japanese, who were also influenced by Chinese Medicine, when asking “how are you” ask “genki” 元気, which is a Chinese Medicine term that means the inherited energy that you get from your parents, or what we know of in modern times as genetics.


So you see that these concepts are rather sophisticated and can be applied to many things, despite using archaic language to describe them. So why do we still use this language and this model of the human body when scientific language and knowledge has advanced so much? The answer is a work in progress. We have seen that these concepts, while ancient, still hold up and have merit, and have yet to find a better way of thinking in performing traditional treatments.


During the last 250 years or so, Chinese civilization was dragged painfully into the modern world. As a result, they have adopted many western ideas, and among them, western medicine. Still, Traditional Chinese Medicine persisted. In many ways the modernizing China tried to conform Traditional Chinese Medicine to the western medical paradigm but it never seemed to be as effective compared to the traditional paradigm. These ancient ways of viewing the human body and medicine have persisted because they provide a unique view of health and well-being that is multi-faceted, adaptable, and capable of being individualized with each person.


So where do we go from here? More and more studies are coming out that show the efficacy of Traditional Chinese Medical modalities like acupuncture and herbal medicine. And yet, many of the concepts are still in need of a scientific explanation for a mechanism of action. However, as this medicine becomes more popular throughout the rest of the world, more research is being done to discover these mechanisms. Because Traditional Chinese Medicine is so vast, finding scientific mechanisms for every aspect of the medicine will be a lot of work, but it is being done. Recently, a doctor in China was honored with the Nobel Prize with discovering one such mechanism for a Chinese herb, Qing Hao 青蒿 (pronounced ching how) in its treatment of malaria. This is one of many reconciliations of Traditional Chinese Medicine and modern science. There’s no doubt that there are many more to come. For the time being, there is so much to be learned from these ancient ideas which have proven to provide an effective and alternate way of looking at a human being and the way it fits into its environment. We will keep it!

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