To a Western audience, Chinese medicine can seem quite mysterious. If you’ve ever been into a Chinese pharmacy, you’ll already know that there are literally thousands of herbs and treatments on offer. Yet there is much to learn from this ancient medical system. So, what is Chinese medicine, and can we apply it in the modern day to help support our wellbeing?April 28, 2022 5:15 pm February 04, 2022 5:31 pm
What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a medical system which dates back at least 2000 years.(1)
Unlike Western medicine, which aims to treat specific diseases, Chinese medicine focuses on the whole individual. Instead of organs, tissues and cells, you’re more likely to hear about life forces when speaking with a practitioner of TCM.
Chinese medicine also focuses more on preventative measures – helping you to stay well – than Western medicine does.
One of the core beliefs in Chinese medicine is that balance and harmony are the key to living well. According to practitioners of TCM, there are two complementary life forces in all of us. The first is ‘yin’, the passive life force, and the second is ‘yang’, an active life force.
When these two forces are in balance and harmony, the individual will feel healthy and well. However, if there is an imbalance, the result is illness or malaise.
Chinese medicine has a vast arsenal of different methods to help correct these imbalances when they occur. These range from herbal remedies to treatments such as acupuncture and cupping.
How did Chinese medicine develop?
Chinese medicine has been around for such a long time that its origins stretch back to a period where medicine was intertwined with witchcraft, myth and legend.(2)
One of the records we have from that time is the oracle inscriptions of the Yin dynasty. In these, we can see that practitioners were starting to take note of, and formalize, different diseases from around 1600BC.
Fast forward to around 770BC and we start to see a separation between theories of medicine and those of witchcraft.
Around this time, the key principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine start to emerge, including the five elements (more on these below).
From this point onwards, the medical system evolved rapidly and many important works on Chinese medicine were written. Each added more knowledge, helping TCM to become the immense and complex system we know today.
By the 1600s AD, the academic system for TCM had become formalized. Students could train under the tutelage of four masters of Chinese medicine.
The modern era brought opportunities to learn and exchange knowledge with other medical systems. Other nations shared their knowledge of anatomy, medicine and surgery, which were integrated into TCM as well.
What are the core principles of TCM?
As already mentioned above, a key part of Chinese medicine is the interaction between yin and yang. These two life forces must be in balance for us to remain feeling healthy and well.(2)
However, the theory of five elements is also central to TCM. The elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water relate to all of nature. In human beings, though, they are also linked with particular areas of the body.(2)(3)
For example, fire relates to the heart and small intestine. Meanwhile, metal relates to the lungs and large intestine.
What’s more, the elements interact with each other in different ways. There is specific terminology for these interactions. For example, one element can generate, control or insult another.
When the elements are balanced (i.e. they are generating and controlling each other correctly), the body is in balance, and you feel well.
When one element insults another, an imbalance occurs. As we’ve seen, this leads to the individual feeling unwell.
In the diagram below, you can see the ‘generative sequence’ of green arrows moving around the circle. The ‘controlling’ or ‘overcoming’ sequence is represented by the red arrows in the centre.
How do TCM practitioners diagnose imbalances?
If you were to visit a TCM practitioner with a particular problem (or even just advice on remaining well), they would perform a number of tests and observations to try and identify any imbalances in the body.(3)
Their aim is to find the source of the imbalance, using the five elements theory, and then help to rebalance yin and yang by correcting it.
To do this, they will pay attention to various areas in your body to check for signs of imbalance. For example, they might listen to your breathing, looking for coughing, wheezing or hiccuping.
They may use their sense of smell to identify the source of any odours. For example, a sweet smell indicates that the spleen is involved, while a putrid smell points to the kidneys.
They may also take your pulse and examine your tongue. Shapes, patterns and coatings on the tongue are all useful to help the practitioner diagnose an imbalance.
They’ll also likely ask you a number of questions about your symptoms and what else is going on in your life right now.
"When the five elements are balanced (i.e. they are generating and controlling each other correctly), the body is in balance, and you feel well."
Treatments in Traditional Chinese Medicine
Depending on the practitioner’s diagnosis, they may use a variety of tools to help restore balance in your body. Here are a few of the most common ones.
This is perhaps the best known TCM treatment among Western audiences. But, it’s actually just one of many treatments on offer. Even so, herbal medicine is hugely important around the world, providing primary healthcare for over four billion people.(4)
Several key texts in Chinese medicine offer advice on which herbs to use for which imbalances. It’s also common to mix different herbs with complementary qualities.
One text, the Ben Cao Gang Mu (also called The Grand Materia Medica) dates back to 1578 AD. It contains information on 1892 substances, including 1173 which are derived from plants. On top of this, it offers an astounding 11000 herbal remedies to treat various ailments.(3)
Of course, this only represents the contribution of one text. There are many others!
As a result, practitioners can prescribe herbal treatments which are highly specific to the symptoms their patient is experiencing.