Chinese medicine: 2. East vs. West

Posted: 2014 年 03 月 26 日 in Chinese medicine
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East Versus West

        The theory and practice of traditional Chinese medicine takes an approach to disease and therapy that is diametrically different from Western ways. The Chinese prefer preventive techniques; the West concentrates on quick cures. In Chinese countries, medicine is considered an integral part of a comprehensive system of health and longevity called yang-sheng (養生), which means “to nurture life.” The system includes proper diet, regular exercise, regulated sex and deep breathing, as well as medicinal therapies. Unlike Western medicine, which has become increasingly fragmented into highly specialized branches, Chinese medicine remains syncretic. The various combinations of therapies from different fields in yang-sheng must be mastered by every Chinese physician.

        In fact, prior to the 20th century, most Chinese families retained family doctors much as modern corporations retain lawyers. The doctor was paid a set monthly fee and made regular rounds to dispense herbal remedies and medical advice specifically tailored to the individual needs of each family member. When a member of the family fell seriously ill, the doctor was held fully responsible for failing to foresee and prevent the problem. Payments were stopped. Only when he cured the patient at his own expense did his normal fee resume. The system stressed the importance of preventive care. It also served as a powerful deterrent to malpractice because doctors profited by keeping their patients healthy and happy rather than sick and dependent.

        Modern families in Taiwan and in other Chinese communities can no longer afford to keep a physician on the payroll, but the precept of prevention prevails. The Chinese trace and treat root causes of weakness and disease rather than their superficial symptoms. The physician draws a medical picture that encompasses everything from the weather and season to a patient’s dietary and sexual habits. And true causes are often found far from the symptoms. For instance, Chinese medicine traditionally traces eye problems to various liver disorders. Such symptomatic connections are rarely established in the West, where the eyes and liver are treated by two specialists separated by chasms of medical and opthomalogical training.

        The Chinese method of probing everywhere for possible causes of disease sometimes raises Western eyebrows. One American women introduced to a Taipei doctor returned from his clinic rather flustered. “He asked me such embarrassing questions!” she said. Everything from diet to elimination and sexual habits is important for the Chinese physician’s diagnosis.

        The theoretical foundations of Chinese medical arts, like those of the martial arts, are rooted in the cosmic theories of yin and yang, the Five Elements (五行: metal, wood, water, fire, earth), and the concept of chi(氣), “vital energy.” Essentially, Chinese doctors manipulate a patient’s internal balance of vital energies by using herbs, acupuncture and other methods to “clear energy stagnation, suppress energy excess, tonify energy deficiency, warm up cold energy, cool down hot energy,” and so forth. By reestablishing the optimum internal balance of vital energies and restoring harmony among the body’s vital organs, a physician can keep his patient healthy.

        Traditional Chinese therapy takes many forms. Some are popular in the West, others confined to Chinese society.

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