History of Science

Traditional Chinese Medicine Isn't So Ancient

One of the biggest strengths people tout about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)—an umbrella term for Eastern health practices ranging from acupuncture and herbal medicine to tai chi and reflexology—is how old it is. If people have relied on something for centuries, it has to be good, right? Unfortunately, this isn't exactly true. Traditional Chinese Medicine—at least, the way people know it today—is only about 60 years old. We have the Communist government of China to thank for it.

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Acupuncture chart from Shisi jing fahui (Expression of the Fourteen Meridians) written by Hua Shou

The Real History Of TCM

These days, TCM is generally thought of as a single school of thought. But before Chairman Mao came to power in 1949, China was awash in a hodge-podge of healing practices. According to Slate, "Attempts at institutionalizing medical education were largely unsuccessful, and most practitioners drew at will on a mixture of demonology, astrology, yin-yang five phases theory, classic texts, folk wisdom, and personal experience." Also contrary to popular belief, even those practices weren't universally trusted. In 1890 after his wife and children fell ill and died, the Qing scholar Yu Yue wrote On Abolishing Chinese Medicine; and in 1919 legendary Chinese writer Lu Xun fought against unproven healing methods in his sad story Medicine after watching his father slowly die despite increasingly expensive traditional treatments. Even Mao didn't trust it: Li Zhi-Sui, Mao's personal physician, wrote, "Publicly, the Chairman was the leading advocate of traditional medicine, but he refused to use it himself."

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Still, there were political reasons to support traditional medicine. In such a large country, Western physicians were few and far between, with traditional healers plentiful in comparison. So the government fused the two worlds. According to writer James Palmer, "It was the Communist government that coined the term TCM...establishing many new TCM universities and institutions in the next few years, where TCM was formally stripped of its most obvious 'superstitious' elements, such as astrology and phrenology. The relentless drumbeat was on 'scientification' — the belief that the huge range of traditional practices could be systematised into an alternative national theory to 'Western medicine', or even integrated into broader medical theory." Those in power recognized that science—whether they considered it "Western" or not—needed to underpin medicine, even if they also recognized that traditional medicine had cultural value.

Chinese Medicine Gets Westernized

The groundbreaking moment of TCM's popularity in the West happened in 1971 when New York Times editor James Reston wrote an article about getting an appendectomy in China. What he wrote was that before the surgery, they injected him with standard anesthetics, and after, they had used acupuncture to relieve pain from post-operative gas. What readers interpreted was that acupuncture had been the anesthetic, and as a result Western interest in acupuncture skyrocketed. This left an opening for the Communist government of China to launch a propaganda campaign touting the practice's extraordinary powers.

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Though TCM is often seen as being in opposition to science-based medicine, it wasn't originally meant that way. It may have been the Western craze that took the science out again. Either way, it remains as popular as ever. "The reason so many people take Chinese medicine seriously, at least in part," according to Slate, "is that it was reinvented by one of the most powerful propaganda machines of all time and then consciously marketed to a West disillusioned by its own spiritual traditions."

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Written by Ashley Hamer February 10, 2017

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