The modern history of Chinese medicine

Mao Zedong had positive experiences with folk medicine during his long march, and everything accumulated with the proclamation: “When he has won this fantastic medicine will be declared the national medicine of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC).” History tells us that Mao won, and he held his promise. He ordered according to rumors a group of one hundred masters of Chinese medicine to start collecting the best treatment techniques that Chinese folk medicine could offer. As a result the group collected only the very best they could find in China or had access to. Time have shown that the collection was rather a collection of the dominant Chinese treatment techniques in that time period; a type of contemporary selection.This collection of techniques and theories made up the foundation of what would be called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). This in plain words means that Traditional Chinese Medicine comes from the systematization Mao ordered after a turbulent period in modern Chinese history.


It exist also another explanation of the development of the traditional Chinese medicine. During the founding of the Peoples Republic of China we find China struggling to manage as a country. Medicine was in shortage and it was difficult to take care of the sick ones. Chairman Mao was a man of action; he knew that a sick population would be the beginning to a hasty end. Personally he had both seen and experienced that herbal medicine and acupuncture had helped his soldiers during the long march. He rarely used it since he had his personal allopathic doctor. The folk medicine was at that time only commonly used in the countryside. The serious shortage of allopathic medicine pressed Chairman Mao to take a hard decision. He decided to make the Chinese folk medicine accessible to the masses in the cities and to largely ignore the non-existing allopathic medicine. Mao started to focus on herbal medicine and acupuncture and brought it to the city. The cities needed urgently something both permanent and useful to cure sick persons. To make this possible he gathered the experts of folk medicine to make a collection of the best health related techniques existing in China at that time. When the collection of the folk medicine techniques was finish he proclaimed the founding of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Within a short time span he builded several hospitals that offered this semi-new medicine. Due to the acute shortage of allopathic medicine the TCM hospitals was warmly welcomed by the population, and (of course) the STRONG status of Chairman Mao helped to give both status and status to this new medical system. It is important to be aware of the fact that the majority of the directors of the TCM hospitals were represented in the came from the countryside, was old (retired), had a low education, likely had manual work and was not religious. Read in a historical context we might analyze this as a description of the followers of Chairman Mao. The users of allopathic medicine was more likely to come from the city, was younger, had higher education, worked in office and they were more likely to believe in a god. In other words, the modern Chinese people went to western medicine (allopathic medicine) and the traditional Chinese people went to Chinese medicine (TCM) when they become sick. It is important to note the bias that manifested in the emerging cohort among the young and coming generation in China at the end of the 90s as the west started to enter China. Young people rebelled the old, through becoming like the people in the west, and the old people tried to suppress the west, with becoming more patriotic. Just remember the student rebellion at the Tian An Men Square in 1989. Anyhow, the wish for the west counted for western medicine (allopathic ) and other western goods.

Soldiers face to face with student demonstrators during 1989's Tiananmen Square protests

The allopathic medicine arrived to China in the nineteenth century. Interesting for us is that the main promoters were missionaries and the Rockefeller Foundation. Most famous is their joint work to found the Peking Union Medical College in Beijing China. Allopathic medicine in Chine grows strongly in the eighties. The amount of western doctors increased with 225.000 over a five years period starting from 1976. It is difficult to find god sources of numbers in China, but we know that in 1981 they had about 300.000 Chinese doctors and close to the double of western doctors. Just a very few of these doctors know BOTH western AND Chinese medicine. Of course, many claim to know them both, but the numbers speak different. We also see that western medicine dominate in urban areas and traditional medicine in country areas. We need to note that it is quite common to find Chinese medical doctor whom work with allopathic medicine, but just have training in Chinese Medical Sciences; a type of autodidact allopathic doctor. Just as we find allopathic doctors in the west that claim to know Chinese Medical Sciences; just because they are allopathic doctors. Some of this doctors might rightfully be called scam doctors, and some might truly be an autodidact doctor.


Just as an anecdote I would like to mention that at the 50 years anniversary of the Peoples Republic of China the name Traditional Chinese Medicine were changed to Chinese Medical Sciences. Read in the light of history this was not only to make folk medicine a science, but also to make Traditional Chinese Medicine separated from Mao; because TCM was both his child and the cure in a difficult period. As we see in Cuba under Fidel Castro. The shipping blockage makes it difficult to import medicine to Cuba. Pressing the Cubans to develop and rely more on natural medicines than would have been natural for them given no blockage. Castro has not proclaimed a Traditional Cuban Medicine (TcM) as Mao did, but who knows what will happen in the future. The history is destined to repeat. The word medical science has become rather popular in the beginning of this millennium making it the natural choice of name. More about the word SCIENCE later.


Chinese medical sciences analyses the human being as a hole. The tools to do this is unique, applicable and effective. Chinese psychology are the aspects from Chinese medical sciences that focuses on the mind and mind related issues. One of the important topics within Chinese psychology are the understanding of the existence of both congenital – and acquired aspects in a person. Meaning that a person have aspects from the parents as well as aspect he have brought into his own life. One of the other themes that are seen as the core fundament are the five personalities and the mental model. This in a true mix with the other analytic tools we find in yin/ yang theory, trigrams and the hexagrams. In modern acupuncture literature we find this topics less visible if present. Normally we only find the use of the seven emotions as the basic training in Chinese psychology both for the western trained acupuncturists and the majority of the China trained ones. Most mental aspects are interpreted into this narrow seven emotions.

The guiding reason for this simplification are the need for a curriculum that focuses on basic physical problems. Perhaps also a wish to not distract the Chinese doctors with everlasting philosophical discussions about psychologically related issues. We also find that the professional literature often have a symptomatic oriented angle when writing about Chinese medicine. A good example here are neverlasting lists of acupuncture points used to cure whatever disease. This is lists that does not work for anything; Chinese medical sciences have a holistic focus, and everything symptomatic is not compatible. Still literature making the deeper philosophical aspects less visible. Personally I think the main reason to this degenerated Chinese medicine can be found in the 298 pages long  book: ”An outline of  Chinese Acupuncture”  published by The Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in 1975; through Foreign language press in Peking. On page one second paragraph it is written: ”In the selection of material for this book, every effort has been made that it be concise, practical and easily understood.”And in the last paragraph on page two it is written: “Owing to our as yet limited knowledge of acupuncture and moxibustion, and lack of experience in compiling books, mistakes and errors are difficult to avoid. It is earnestly desired that readers will offer their suggestions and criticism so as to help in advancing this work.”


The main reason for claiming this book as a destructive book for Chinese medicine were that this was one of the first official textbooks written on English for foreign acupuncture students studying in China. This students participated in the first acupuncture courses in China; one month duration including a trip to the Great wall of China. This was the book that should give Chairman Mao some face regarding the promise he gave to the World Health Organization (WHO) about opening this acupuncture course. The graduates from this course become the first official China trained acupuncturists in the west. They went returned to their countries and often got a elevated status due to their study in China; a status they used to the fullest. Many wrote their own acupuncture books; with the Chinese one as the base. This first books written by Westerners would become the base for the development of acupuncture in the west, and their lectures become considered as words from gods of Chinese medicine.

The initially mentioned textbook was in all humbleness very shallow and superficially written! The content in the book goes as follow: 5 pages history, 24 pages needling technique, 184 pages localization of acupuncture points and meridians, 9 pages about how to select acupuncture points, 42 pages symptomatic treatment (Western diseases), 29 pages other therapies (mainly ear acupuncture) and finally 5 pages about the Chinese names of the acupuncture points. In a way that book is a piece of art. Just think about writing the first complete acupuncture book (for foreigners) in English without mentioning the fundamental aspects like yin/ yang, qi and five elements; and on the top of everything not mentioning holism or individualized treatment with a single word. Considering that the graduates never had this theories written in their textbooks, leaving them with their own lecturing notes as their theoretical support when opening their acupuncture practices, their lectures and writing their acupuncture books.


During those days the course in China were 20 days with lecture and clinical practice. Each consisting of 1,5 hours with the use of a translation from Chinese to English; relatively they only got 45 minutes of lecture information. It is possible to conclude that they only had about 15 hours of lecture where they were presented for all the theory and clinical information that this superficial teaching book should support. Everything start with something and then develop into something deeper or more complete, but here does not time or literature exist. In a way you get a feeling that in this point in time it existed a type of  dangerous naivety among people that only had that course as a background before putting needles into sick people. Of course most of the people attending this course were trained western medical doctors, but what does this tell you about a western trained medical doctor; a person that select the knowledge from a 15 hours course and descart knowledge accumulated from years medical school. Bottom end, you can be as much western trained medical doctor you want, but that will never change the fact, you are not a doctor in Chinese medicine; Western medicine and Chinese medicine is not the same. No person without proper training and information can not practice a medicine that is based on it! Just think about a person practicing as a western medical doctor after a 15 hours course. Having written this we need to be aware of the fact that many of this western acupuncture pioneers with time studied more and gained a profound knowledge within Chinese medicine. At the same time I am grateful for both this course and the superficial book; they made acupuncture known for us and were the seed that later grow into bachelor, master and doctor degree studies within Chinese medicine in the west. But everything have to start a place. Well, we might question the teaching efficiency and theoretical depth in some classes.


Therapeutical use of Chinese medicine requires a minimum of insight in elementary Chinese philosophy and – theories. Of course, according to both the depth you want to penetrate, and – the type of understanding you are searching you need to go deeper into different physiological – and psychological aspect related to the Chinese medicine. Unfortunately today we have only a limited amount of literature that describe Chinese medical physiology properly. We do not have ANY book that explains the Chinese psychology as a complete science. Pits and pieces, here and there, are everything we can impress others with; really nothing! This book focuses on the main psychological topics as that emerges within Chinese medical sciences.





The writer of this article gives seminars in Chinese medicine and Chinese psychology all over the world! Go to this page to find out how.

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