An Introduction of Traditional Chinese Medicine


Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) includes acupuncture, herbal medicine, and other traditional medical practices originating in China, which is considered as a complementary or alternative medical system in most of the western countries while remaining as a form of primary care throughout most of the Asian countries.

Encompassing thousands of years of history, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is based on a deep understanding of the laws and patterns of nature and how to apply them to the human body. In this 21st century, we have seen TCM modalities are gaining more recognition globally, particularly acupuncture.

After thousands of years of clinical tests and improvements, TCM has developed into an independent medical system with special ways of diagnosis, theory, and medication. It is time-tested, experience-oriented, trusted and has always been the primary health care in China.

TCM considers the body of a man and the natural world as an inseparable whole. Using the method of synthetic analysis on the macroscopic point of view, TCM studies dynamic intrinsic relationships of the body and the relationship between interior and exterior environments and then makes clear basic physiology to serve medical practice.

TCM is based on laws, concepts, and theories, covering a widespread theoretical system encompassing the Yin and Yang theory, the theory of the five elements, Zang-Fu organs, the meridian theory, pathogenesis of the disease, pathology, diagnostics, syndrome differentiation, prevention of disease, and therapeutic principles. These provide the theoretical basis upon which to build a deep understanding of medicine and the tools necessary to probe into the theoretical systems of TCM.

The development of the theory of TCM dates back to the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Period in Chinese history. This period was a time of separation between the kingdoms resulting in the remarkable development of politics, economy, science, and culture. Due to the relaxation of totalitarianism and the resulting drastic social change, great academic progress was made in the materialist dialectical ideology of Yin and Yang, as well as the Five Elements theories, and these advances were shared with the public.

This freedom and wide exchange of ideas provided the practical foundation for the development of TCM. Its origins lie in the very beginning of human activities, and since the 21st century B. C., there had been a deepening of the understanding of the disease.

Slowly the study of the art of Chinese medicine has progressed. The first use of technical words was added during the Shang Dynasty, resulting from an interpretation made using inscriptions found on tortoiseshell. Some examples of technical words are abdominal mass scabies, tympanitis, dental caries, etc.; some terminology derived from symptoms such as tinnitus, diarrheal, insomnia; however, most of the diseases were named after affected parts such as head, eye, ear, nose, and skin diseases. According to Mr. Hu Houxuan, “man in the Shang Dynasty named 16 kinds of diseases, for example, the diseases of the head, eye, nose, ear, mouth, tooth, throat, abdomen, foot, toe, as well as urinary, obstetric, gynecologic, pediatric, and infectious diseases, covering almost all aspects of internal and surgical medicine today, including diseases of the brain, ophthalmology, ear, nose and throat diseases, dentistry, urology, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, infectious diseases, etc.”.

During the Western Zhou Dynasty, Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States, the man had more understanding of the nature of the disease. The Mountain and Sea Classic recorded 38 types of diseases out of which 23 were given technical terms such as jaundice, blockage, diseases due to the pathogenic wind, abdominal masses, scabies, rabies, epidemic diseases, etc.; 12 were named after symptoms and signs such as abdominal pain, sore throat, vomiting, deafness and the like. Discovered in the excavation of No.3 Han Tomb at Mawangdui, Changsha, Prescriptions for 52 kinds of Diseases listed a total of 103 disease names, signs, and symptoms. According to incomplete figures, The Book of Changes, The Book of History, The Book of Odes, and others of the 13 classics, recorded over 180 kinds of diseases and symptoms. The above mentioned show the depth at which man’s understanding of the disease has grown along with his medical practical experience, thus providing a foundation for the formalization of medical law and the formation of its theoretical system.

The development of natural sciences is always interrelated. They promote and benefit each other and the development of TCM is inseparable from the achievements of the ancient science and technology of China. For example, the development of astronomy, the calendar, meteorology, agriculture, mathematics, and other disciplines laid a solid multidisciplinary foundation for the formation of the theories of TCM, for instance, Yi He, a famous ancient doctor presented “the theory of Six Climatic Factors,” which demonstrated that ancient people understood the inevitable effect of abnormal changes of climate on the health.

The formation of the theoretical system of TCM possesses a profound philosophical origin. When systematizing long-term medical experience, ancient doctors purposely applied ancient materialistic dialectical viewpoints, such as the theory of vital essence and Qi, Yin and Yang theory, the Five Elements Theory, and so forth. This application transformed scattered and fragmented medical experience into a systematic and complete system.

The formation of the theoretical system of TCM is symbolized by the first publication of the Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic. The classic summed up the medical achievements and clinical experiences of Chinese medicine during the Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States Period. This text established the theoretical basis and principle of TCM and derived many ideas from the achievements of astronomy, biology, the creation of the calendar, geography, anthropology, psychology, and ancient philosophy. This theoretical system is still guiding the clinical practice of TCM today.

Through the theories of vital essence and Qi, Yin and Yang, and the Five Elements as the theoretical methods and holistic concept, the Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic explains the laws of life and the unity of the body with the natural world. It provides a systematic discussion of anatomical formation, viscera, meridians, physiology, and pathology; providing as well the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of disease. Deliberately combining natural science with philosophy, the classic combines the two to provide an in-depth interdisciplinary approach towards medicine. The classic was considerably advanced for its time and contributed greatly to the world of medicine. Still of academic importance today are skeletal descriptions, as well as those of the blood vessels, the morphology of internal organs, circulation, and blood physiology. Contributions providing an understanding of the multiple functions of Zang-Fu organs in physiology are great, as is the information regarding the integral relationship between physiology and pathology.

Another classic that still plays an important role in present-day clinical practice is the Classic of Medical Problems, which appeared before the Han Dynasty. It discussed and supplemented the difficult questions posed by the Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic and was a major contribution to the basic theory of TCM. Throughout the Han Dynasty, TCM made even further progress. Using as a foundation the Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic and the Classic of Medical Problems, an outstanding physician, Zhang Zhongjing, wrote the first clinical medicine treatise during the Eastern Han Dynasty (150 219 A.D.), The Treatise on Cold Attacks and Miscellaneous Diseases, and he further expounded upon the medical achievements of his forefathers while integrating his own clinical experience. Within the treatise, a system of treatment based on syndrome differentiation and the principles of medical theory, therapeutic methods, prescriptions, and medication in clinical practice was established.

Arising from his methods of analyzing and differentiating exogenous diseases and internal miscellaneous diseases in accordance with the six pairs of meridians and eight principles was a solid foundation for the development and future abundance of clinical Chinese medicine. The Treatise on Cold Attacks and Miscellaneous Diseases was subsequently rearranged by Wang Shuhe and divided into two books: The Treatise on Cold Attacks, and The Synopsis of Prescriptions of the Golden Chamber. The former included 397 diagnostic and therapeutic methods, and 113 prescriptions; the latter listed 25 volumes and 265 prescriptions.

The Synopsis of Prescriptions of the Golden Chamber put forward: “There are only three causes for all diseases: the first, exogenous cause, is that the evils invaded from the meridians transmit into the viscera; the second is that the evils invaded from the four limbs and nine orifices transmit into the blood vessel and result in stasis and stagnancy; the third consists of such pathogenic factors as a sexual indulgence, bites by insects and beasts, and trauma,” This text further advanced the etiological theory in the Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic by analyzing the symptoms and signs according to the Theory of Zang-Fu Organs. Another text, The A B Classic of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, written by Huang Fumi, a famous physician in the Jin Dynasty, also offered a deeper understanding of the meridian theory. The Pulse Classic, a text by Wang Shuhe, summarizes the 24 kinds of pulse conditions and their related principal diseases.

The General Treatise on the Causes and Symptoms of Diseases, compiled by Chao Yuanfang during the Sui Dynasty, is the first treatise of TCM on pathology. It detailed the causes and symptoms of numerous diseases and is an important source for reference. The Key to Therapeutics of Children’s Diseases, compiled by Qian Yi, was another pioneer in the development of the treatment of diseases of the Zang-Fu viscera, being based on symptom and syndrome differentiation. A more concrete summary of the causes of diseases was displayed in Chen Yan’s Prescriptions Assigned to Three Categories of Pathogenic Factors of Diseases. It focused on internal factors of the disease: The impairment caused by the seven emotions, as well as external factors: the impairment induced by the six climatic evils in excess, or of untimely occupancy. It also focused on the non-endo exogenous: impairment due to improper diet, epidemics, bites by insects and beasts, poisoning, trauma, etc. This type of classification corresponds more with clinical reality and became a new development of TCM etiology.

Each generation of doctors continues to study the past medical experiences found within books such as the above. And each generation builds upon past information, creating a richer theoretical foundation while gradually forming various types of schools of TCM. For example, influenced by the theory of The Five Elements and Six Climatic Factors, the eminent physician Liu Heiian, during the Jin and Yuan Dynasties, emphasized the theory that the diseases caused by the six climatic factors could become the heat fire evil in the body. He also believed that the heat and fire of the six kinds of climatic factors were the most important pathogenic factors thus explaining the pathological mechanism of the heat fire evil.

Zhang Congzheng advocated that the diseases were caused by exogenous evils which should be expelled using the methods of diaphoresis, emesis, and purgation. Li Dongyuan held that diseases were mainly brought about through the internal injury of the spleen and stomach, thus explaining the theory of the ascending and descending of the spleen and stomach and creating the theory of relieving high fever with drugs consisting of sweet flavour and warm nature. Zhu Zhenheng advocated the theory that Yang is ever in excess while Yin is ever deficient. This further developed the theory of ministerial fire and enriched the theoretical system of TCM. In addition, there was Zhang Yuansu’s theory of the pathological mechanism of viscera, and Zhang Jing Yue’s explanation of Yin Yang, the kidney and vital gate, etc. All of the above theories enriched and developed the theoretical system of TCM.

The theory of febrile diseases deals with the pathology, diagnosis, and therapy of febrile diseases. In the period of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the school of febrile diseases was developed. This symbolized the understanding and study of febrile diseases that reached a new level. Wu Youke, a physician in the Ming Dynasty wrote the Treatise on Pestilence and offered the theory of pestilence evil, which was the first systematic exploration of the etiology and therapeutics of febrile diseases. This laid the foundation for the development of the theory of febrile diseases. During the Qing Dynasty, many books regarding febrile diseases were compiled, some of which is the Treatise on Tropic Febrile Diseases written by Ye Tianshi; The Treatise on Differentiation and Treatment of Febrile Diseases written by Wu Jutong; The Treatise on Damp-Heat Diseases authored by Xue Shengbai, and A Compendium on Febrile Diseases completed by Wang MengYing.

Within the books listed above, the authors systematically summarized the pathogenic law of exogenous febrile diseases during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, making a breakthrough in traditional understanding that “all febrile diseases belong to cold attack”, thereby creating the principles of differential diagnosis and treatment of febrile diseases on the basis of the theories of Wei, Qi, Ying, and Xue as well as Triple Jiao. This completed the theoretical system in such aspects as pathogenesis, pathology, pulse diagnosis, and treatment, etc. A great contribution to the enrichment and development of the theoretical system of TCM was made. It is necessary to point out that the theories of both the cold attack and febrile diseases are two major schools that supplement each other and play an important guiding role in the clinical practice and studies of TCM.

Great progress has been made in the development of TCM over the last 70 years, and great interest has been aroused in medical circles world-wide.

There has been an enhancement in the systematization and research of the basic theories of TCM. The application of modern science and technology towards the understanding of the essence of Chinese medical theories has displayed remarkable achievements in such areas as the nature of Yin deficiency and Yang deficiency, the essence of cold and heat, the essence of kidney and spleen, meridians, etc.

In Canada, acupuncture is the most recognized TCM treatment modality. Half a dozen provinces have regulated (or are in the process of regulating) acupuncture, but British Columbia is the first and only province to have regulated TCM.

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