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Ethnomedicine: Traditional Chinese Medicine

acupunct.jpg (6K)Chinese medicine has the honrourable reputation of being the oldest medical system in the world. The first-ever book of herbal medicine, the 'Shen-nung pen ts'ao ching, is credited to emperor Shen Nung (2696 BC). This remarkably early date only allows speculation at the far more ancient oral traditions that preceded it.

Chinese medicine is complex and at first sight appears alien to the western mind: Acupuncture needles don't look very appealing, nor does moxibustion, the practice of burning herbs directly on the skin, or the many bizarre looking remedies that stock a Chinese pharmacy. Dried parts of weird and wild animals, boy's urine and other unsavoury items line the shelves next to every conceivable sort of herb, root or resin found in China. It is easy to see why critics of Chinese medicine compare it with the filthy practices once common in Europe before the age of enlightenment and rationalism swept the apothecary-kitchens clean.

The philosophy underlying Chinese medicine is no more comprehensible: there is talk of yin and yang, the principles of male and female powers that hold the universe in balance, and of a mysterious energy known as 'chi', which permeates everything in the universe. There are references to 'elements', wood, fire, water, metal, and earth, none of which actually refer to physical substances as such, but rather to the expression of symbolic qualities, which are used to categorize the phenomena of the manifest world. These qualities have their correspondences e.g. in the heavenly directions, the planets, flavours, colours or the physical organs and functions of the body.

Common to all eastern medical practices is the idea that physical well-being is a sign of mental, physical and spiritual equilibrium. To this effect exercises for example are practiced not so much to keep the body flexible, but rather to nourish it with subtle 'chi' energy. Chinese philosophy asserts that 'chi' energy is vitally important. Excessive living habits or extreme environmental conditions cause it to become imbalanced or stagnant, which causes one of the bodily organs to start manifesting symptoms of excessive or insufficient yin or yang energy. To understand this philosophy a little better we need to examine the system of correspondences on which it is based:

yinyang.gif (4K)According to Chinese philosophy yin is the female energy in nature. It is yielding, receptive, cool, and dark, introvert and feminine, while yang, its male counterpart is active, hot, light, extravert and moving. The harmony between these powers creates a balanced dynamic, but when one becomes too strong it is to the detriment of the other.

The organs are categorized into five yin and five yang organs. Yang organs are the gallbladder, the large and small intestine, the bladder and the stomach. Yin organs are the liver, heart, lungs, kidneys and pancreas. Each of these corresponds to one of the elements and together they form a dynamic system in which every part influences all others. Elements are not regarded as separate, static entities, but as a cycle or flow of a constantly transforming energy that takes on different qualities as it changes from one state to the next, just as the seasons follow a natural cycle in which summer follows spring and autumn arises from summer. Thus: wood creates fire, fire becomes earth (ash), earth gives birth to metal (found in the earth) and metal becomes water (liquid) and water nourishes wood. There is no beginning and no end to this cycle. Correspondingly the organs of the body follow each other in succession of their associated elements. Thus, the kidneys (water) give rise to the liver (wood), which in turn gives rise to the heart (fire) etc.

This may seem rather complex - and it is, but it explains why in Chinese medicine someone who has heart problems will receive treatment for the liver. Instead of remedying the organ that manifests the symptoms, the problem is addressed at its root cause, which is perceived to lie in the organ that precedes the ailing part and the part where the chi energy has become stagnant.

Here is a simplified table of correspondences:

ElementWoodFireEarthMetalWater
EmotionsAngerJoyCompassionGriefFear
Yin organLiverHeartPancreasLungsKidneys
Yang organGallbladderSmall IntestineStomachLarge IntestineBladder
Body TissuesTendonsBlood vesselsMusclesSkin/hairBones
Flavour Sour Bitter Sweet Spicy Salty
Planet Jupiter Mars Saturn Venus Mercury
Direction East South Centre West North
Weather Windy Hot Moist Dry Cold

One of the most common treatment methods in Chinese medicine is acupuncture, the application of needles to certain points on the body that correspond with the organs. These points are very specific for each organ and are mapped on a kind of grid-system known as 'meridians', a system which is still completely incomprehensible to western science. Meridians are invisible energy lines that span the whole body, top to toe, like the geographical meridians that span the globe. In order to facilitate the unhindered flow of chi these energy-lines must be unobstructed. Blockages are removed by applying acupuncture needles to stimulate certain points along the corresponding meridian. There are yin needles and yang needles and depending on the nature of obstruction the needles are turned either clockwise (yang) to stimulate or counter-clockwise (yin) to relax the associated organ. Western science has not been able to correlate the meridians to any physical aspect of our anatomy, though attempts have been made to relate them to the nerves, lymph and blood vessels.

Although rational models of science and medicine is still puzzled by the question of 'how', Chinese medicine evidently works. This should give us pause for reflection, not just in terms of the merits of this ancient medical system, but on the nature of health and disease and our own materialistic approach to medicine, which tends to view the human body as a piece of biochemical machinery. Malfunctioning parts are remedied by jolting them back into action, or, if the worst comes to the worst, they are simply removed or replaced. Even hearts and kidneys are now routinely replaced and soon we will be able to grow spare parts from our very own cells. By contrast, Chinese medicine considers the universe as a whole and the patient in relation to its cosmic environment; the yin and yang forces must be re-balanced, so that the chi energy can flow freely and the individual can return to a healthful balanced state of physical/emotional equilibrium. It is a holistic system that considers the dynamics of the interactions between macrocosm and microcosm.

Nothing occurs in isolation. The symptoms of an individual are but the reflection of a macroscopic imbalance. I once asked an old Chinese practitioner what he thought about the phenomenal increase of immune deficiency diseases such as Eppstein Barr virus and auto-immune responses, especially among children. 'Its not surprising people are becoming weak and their immune systems are compromised' he told me, 'the earth herself is sick! We must apply acupuncture principles to the healing of the earth.' Then he talked about feng shui and the fact that the meridian system does not just apply to the human body, but that it likewise spans the body of the earth. It opened my eyes to the scope of this holistic philosophy. To heal the people we must also heal the earth - yet unfortunately, while it is the philosophical precept, it is not always the reality of Chinese medicine.

In recent years Chinese medicine has come under fire from conservationists who protest the use of endangered plant and animal parts. An ethical reform to take into consideration the endangered status of certain species is not something a living tradition should shy away from. But traditional practices are like habits - they are hard to break. Sustainability has only become a problem in recent years, since human populations and consumerism have started to explode, but they must urgently be addressed if there is to be a future for our traditions at all.

For questions or comments email: kmorgenstern@sacredearth.com

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Please note that although all the references to edible and medicinal herbs are tried and tested, their efficacy cannot be guaranteed and has not been approved by the FDA. Furthermore, everybody responds differently to various plants, and adverse reactions cannot be ruled out. Historical information regarding poisonous plants is included for educational purposes only and should not be tried out at home. Everybody uses herbs at their own risk and thus must make themselves fully aware of their potential power. Any information given here is educational and should not replace a visit to the doctor should this be necessary. Neither Sacred Earth nor Kat Morgenstern accepts responsibility for anybody's home experimentation. Links to external sites are included as pointers to further resources - we do not endorse them or are in any way responsible for their content, nor do we thus verify that their content is accurate.