Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is one of the oldest surviving medical traditions in the world.
TCM evolved within a culture that has spanned over five thousand years, and perhaps further into prehistory. The practice is deeply influenced by Daoist philosophy, aiming to diagnose and treat imbalances in the body through curative herbs and natural techniques like acupuncture and moxibustion.
How long has Chinese medicine been around?
Chinese medicine has been used for thousands of years. The tradition may have its roots in the shamanic era of the Shang Dynasty (1600 to 1046 B.C.). At the time, illness was generally attributed to curses or demons sent by a disgruntled ancestor. Shamans would break turtle shells and scapular bones with a heated rod, then divine the will of the ancestors from the shape of the crack.
Chinese medicine shifted from the shamanistic worldview to a more disciplined and systematic medical model during the Zhou Dynasty (1050 – 221 B.C.). The practice was further formalized after the Warring States period (475-221 BC) when scholars began compiling records into a medical canon that would inform TCM to this day.
The Foundations of Traditional Chinese Medicine
The Huangdi Neijing, or The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic, was written sometime around 2600 BC, perhaps by the Yellow Emperor himself. The text remains a foundational authority on Daoism and Chinese medicine, covering the philosophical concepts at the core of TCM.
By this point in history, the curses and demons of the shamanic era have become the more earthly effects of diet, lifestyle, constitution, environment, and emotions. The human body, mirroring the universe itself, is composed of the complementary forces, Yin & Yang. Energy or lifeforce is known as Qi, and the five elements of the natural world are reflected in the organs of the body. At the heart of this philosophy, and threading throughout the entire practice of TCM is the call for balance, harmony, and unification.
TCM continued to evolve over the millennia. In 1578, during the Ming Dynasty, Li Shizhen compiled the Bencao Gangmu (Materia Medica) after reviewing 800 other medical texts and completing three decades of field study. The text describes hundreds of herbs and remedies derived from plants, minerals, and animal parts, and encapsulates Chinese medical theory before the influence of western medicine in the 19th century.
Yin & Yang: The Universe in Balance
Yin and Yang are ancient symbols of the one constant in life: change. The concept is applied to any complementary pairing such as cold/hot, internal/external, contraction/expansion, inhalation/exhalation or rest/motion.
Yin Yang pairings are not necessarily opposites, but rather two extremes of the same property. For instance, inhalation and exhalation are alternating extremes of breathing. There cannot be one without the other. And within each extreme, lies some essence of the other. If one extreme is developed fully, it can transform into the other extreme, producing a counter effect. Thus, we are in a constant oscillation between Yin and Yang, as is nature itself.
Diagnosis & Treatment in TCM
In TCM, the Yin Yang framework is used for both diagnosis and treatment, as illness originates from an imbalance of these forces in the body. Diagnosis involves determining the specific imbalance through a series of observations and questioning.
A TCM practitioner will commonly check a patient’s pulse and tongue, but they’ll also note the nuances of physical appearance, mannerisms, cadence, and the sound of breath and voice to guide their diagnosis. For example, a patient who appears withdrawn, speaks with a low, frail voice, and has a weak pulse shows Yin qualities. An agitated, fast-speaking, red-faced patient with a coarse voice and full, rapid pulse shows Yang qualities.
The goal of treatment is to bring any extreme back into balance through curative herbs, diet, or techniques like acupuncture. Chinese herbs are also classified into either Yin or Yang, forming a comprehensive system through which the body can be brought back into a state of strength and harmony.
The Five Elements in Chinese Medicine
Heaven has four seasons and Five Elements, which on the one hand are in control of birth, growth, harvest and storage, and on the other in control of producing cold, heat, dryness, humidity and wind. The five viscera in man are capable of producing five energies, which in turn are responsible for the five emotions of joy, anger, sadness, grief and fear.
– Nei Jing, Book 2, Chapter 5: Great Treatise on Yin Yang Classifications of Natural Phenomena
Since the Warring States Period (476-221 BC), TCM practitioners have used the concept of the Five Elements to guide diagnosis. These elements represent the five ‘fundamental energies’ of nature and the interconnected relationship between them. In TCM, the elements are linked to organs, emotions, the senses, constitutions, and even personality types.
The Cycles of the Five Elements in TCM
The natural elements and seasons are in constant motion, each one affecting the next in a cycle of either generation or control (or destruction). For instance, wood generates fire, which burns into ash (earth). In the control cycle, fire can dominate metal, which in turn is used to cut down and manipulate wood.
When applied to the human body, these cycles provide a kinetic and multi-dimensional blueprint through which practitioners can detect imbalances in the body and restore equilibrium.
Aspects of the Five Elements
Additionally, all aspects within a single element are interrelated. For example, metal, which includes the properties of air, is the element of autumn – the season when leaves fall from the treas. Autumn represents the release of what no longer serves us to make room for new life. Fittingly, the organs attributed to metal are the lungs, nose, and large intestine which are ‘purifiers’ or have detoxifying actions, releasing what no longer serves the body.
The color of metal is white, related to both death and ‘the rising sun’, or resurrection. This is conceptually tied to the ‘reaping’ aspect of metal, and the emotion of metal which is sorrow or grief. In TCM, grief can impair lung function and cause shortness of breath, and, of course, our lungs are most vulnerable in the dry, windy months of autumn.
TCM & Modern Medicine
Traditional Chinese Medicine is a complex, sophisticated and fascinating discipline that has been refined over thousands of years. And in recent decades, the tradition has led to some of the most important developments in modern medical research.
TCM arrived on western shores during the Californian Gold Rush of the early 19th century but was largely ignored by the west until the 1970s. Then, in 1972, pharmaceutical chemist Tu Youyou successfully isolated and synthesized Artemisinin with the guidance of a text roughly 1700 years old. The discovery saved millions of lives, but it was only possible due to the preservation of knowledge across millennia.
Since then, there has been avid clinical interest in TCM, heralding a new medical branch that merges traditional and modern medicine. Today, Integrative Medicine offers patients a more holistic and personal approach, using the best of modern science and ancient medical wisdom.