Chinese Medicine Demystified (Part I): A Case of Mistaken Identity | Chris Kresser
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Chinese Medicine Demystified (Part I): A Case of Mistaken Identity

by Chris Kresser

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Note: This is the first article in an ongoing series. Make sure to check out the next articles when you’re finished with this one:

I’m sure you’re at least somewhat familiar with Chinese medicine and acupuncture by now.  It’s received a lot of media coverage over the last decade, and insurance companies are now covering it in many states. But even though an increasing number of people are using acupuncture to address their health problems, most still don’t understand how Chinese medicine works.

We’ve been told that Chinese medicine involves mysterious energy called “qi” circulating through invisible “meridians” in the body.  When the flow of qi through our meridians becomes blocked, illness results.  The purpose of acupuncture and other Chinese medical therapies (like herbal medicine and qi gong) is to promote the proper flow of qi through the meridians, thus restoring health.  Sound familiar?

If you’ve ever been to an acupuncturist in the west, I’m sure you’ve received some version of this explanation. After all, this is what they teach in acupuncture school. I know this because I’m in my final semester of studying Chinese medicine, and this is the explanation in our textbooks.

Understandably, these fundamental concepts of Chinese medicine have been difficult for western patients and doctors to accept.  If you sit a doctor down who has had ten years of post-graduate medical training and tell him that an unidentified energy called qi flowing through imaginary meridians is the key to health and disease, he’s going to look at you like you’re crazy.  And I don’t blame him.

What if I told you that nearly everything we’ve been taught in the West about how Chinese medicine works isn’t accurate?  What if I told you that Chinese medicine isn’t a woo-woo, esoteric “energy medicine” at all, but instead a functional, “flesh and bones” medicine based on the same basic physiology as western medicine?  And what if I told you I could explain the mechanisms of Chinese medicine in simple, familiar terms that any eight year-old could understand and even the most skeptical, conservative doctor couldn’t argue with?

Here’s the thing. The “energy meridian” model that has become the default explanation of Chinese medicine US is not only out of sync with our modern, scientific understanding of the body – it’s also completely inconsistent with classical Chinese medical theory.

In other words, we’ve made up our own western version of Chinese medicine that has little to do with how it was understood and practiced since it began more than 3,000 years ago in China.

This gross mischaracterization has kept Chinese medicine on the fringes of conventional medical care since the 1930s and 1940s.  Most doctors and patients have simply been unable to accept the explanation they’ve been offered for how acupuncture works. The result is that acupuncture has come to be seen as either a mystical, psychic medicine or a foofy, relaxing spa-type treatment.

And that’s a big shame. Because Chinese medicine is in fact a complete system of medicine that has successfully treated many common health conditions for more than 2,500 years. Chinese medicine was passed through the ages in an unbroken lineage of some of the best minds of China. It was used by emperors and the royal courts to help them live into their 90s and stay fertile into their 80s at a time when the average life expectancy in the west was 30 years.

The Chinese were performing detailed human dissections where they carefully measured the blood vessels and weighed the internal organs at a time when western physicians thought the body was made up of “humors”. These dissections helped Chinese physicians to discover the phenomenon of continuous blood circulation 2,000 years before it was discovered in the west. The discovery of blood circulation is still considered the single most important event in the history of medicine.

Chinese medicine has been around for a very, very long time. The first evidence of the type of medicine that led to the Chinese Medicine in use today dates back to about 6,000 BC, which was during the neolithic (new stone age) period. Stone tools from this period have been found that were specially shaped for making small incisions in the skin, which was the early form of acupuncture. That’s 8,000 years of uninterrupted use. To put this in perspective, western medicine as we’ve come to recognize it today wasn’t even invented until the 1350s (the middle ages), which makes it less than 700 years old. Ah hem.

Let me ask you this. Do you think Chinese medicine would have survived for more than 3,000 years and spread to every corner of the globe if it wasn’t a powerful, complete system of medicine?

The reason Chinese medicine isn’t more popular in the west is that it’s completely misunderstood even by the people who practice it. And as long as acupuncturists continue to promote the “energy meridian” model as the explanation for how Chinese works, it’s destined to remain a fringe alternative modality.

In the next article I’m going to give you an explanation for how Chinese medicine works that is not only historically accurate, but also consistent with the principles of anatomy and physiology as we understand them today. I’m also going to tell you how this blatant mischaracterization of Chinese medicine in the west came about.

Read the next post in the series: Chinese Medicine Demystified (Part II): Origins of the “Energy Meridian” Myth


Join the conversation

  1. I’d love to see Dr. Yaron Seidman joining in on this conversation.

    His views on how TCM was created in the 60’s is very thought provoking.

    There is a big difference between TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and CCM (Classical Chinese Medicine).

    I was not impressed with the clinical results I witnessed in the University clinic that I attended as a final year for my TCM degree.

    I was impressed though with an acupuncturist who based his treatments on Su Wen/Ling Shu insights. He had 2 guys working in the bush learning classical chinese so as to deeply understabd these classics and to pass on their insights to him. At this time I did not respect chinese herbal medicine very much. I loved it’s history though and I was deeply fascinated by the simplicity and clarity of the Shang Han Lun.

    When I met Dr. Yaron Seidman It was the first time I met a Chinese Herbalist who got heroic results with his herbal prescriptions. Due to his own research into classical and ancient Chinese characters he came up with some very deep insights into the principle hidden in the Su Wen/Ling Shu.

    Personally I think it is a misleading approach mixing western and eastern medical systems. Each on their own are excellent and fit for different approaches, conditions and situations.

    Currently I am learning about functional medicine which was a result of my dissatisfaction with TCM. Classical Chinese Medicine is a deep passion of mine though and Dr. Yaron Seidman’s work in regards to Hunyuan Medicibe has been very inspiring to me.

  2. I appreciate that I came late to this thread but I’m delighted to have stumbled onto it as it clears a lot of misunderstanding.
    As a medical doc (cardiologist) I have been looking at applying engineering principles to the treatment of chronic diseases, especially the concepts of positive and negative feedback and it is interesting that this seems to be incorporated in TCM from the start.
    Like any tradition it’s very unlikely to have got everything right and like religion, it’s extremely likely that modern practitioners have messed up a lot of what was wise in the original ideas. But it’s refreshing to get (part way) back to the reality of a powerful body of knowledge. Many thanks.

  3. The entire complex of Chinese medical tradition has been discovered in the scientific research from Korea, starting from 1960s (in the North), until the latest research from 21st Century (2004-2015). It is called the Primo Vascular System and it is the scientific explanation for the system of meridians carrying essential energy.
    The rest of Chinese medicine is connected with deep knowledge on natural proportionalities that were the natural producers of harmony.
    How they get there 3,000 years ago? By nonlinear thinking strategies.

    • I forget to add: the Korean research (now in South Korea) indicates that Qi (essential energy) is in fact the transport of oxygen through the entire body inside a corpuscle named “sanal”. This vascular system (originally named Bonghan system after the name of the N. Korean scientist who discovered it) is the third system of human body after the blood and lymph systems. This system (Primo) is connected with the acupuncture points that are sinks for photons (incoming from environment) and biophotons (outgoing, or waste photons).
      The relevant connection to acupuncture points was not proved, yet, but the scope of the research is in this direction.

      • I believe that the so called Vascular System has been named already as the Circulatory System by modern scientists. We know it is the heart which pumps the blood into the lung to collect the oxygen and circulate it to the body cells. Thus there is no need to create another name for the Circulatory System for consistency. To put it into proper perspective, the “qi flow” is only a traditional way of describing that the oxygen flow which was carried and circulated by the blood. In other words, qi flow is oxygen flow. Unfortunately, the ancients did not know about the oxygen then but called it qi instead.

        The connection of the acupuncture points are in line with all the nerves in the nervous system. They have been indicated in the book published by the Foreign Language Press, Beijing. The title of the book is “Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion.” ISBN 7-119-01758-6

        The acupoints may be verified with the book “Gray’s Anatomy”. One will see that the meridians are correspond exactly where the nerves are located.

        • Sir, you did not understand: the Primo (or Bonghan) Vascular System is a system that runs inside the blood and lymph system, inside all organs, including the brain. Hence, it is not the blood system as you have interpreted.

          • Im also not of the blood system belief. As per bohang ducts as i understand, There is a flow in the connective tissue controled by a field gradient of emf and the flow itself. Salts…upon loss of field (death stops flow , flow generates em life, no field the concenratin of ions diffuses…) the evidence disappears. Lets remember kidney here. Later in a neurojournal with implications to heart brain and vascular threads, i heard of a sort of glial cell. Glial cells are the major portion of brain tissue. This one type is associated with necrosis (alzheimers was the initial point for the investigation) and the suspect causative inflamatory neurohormones… Is also found in the vascular lining tissue. It is suspected there is a communication going on. Recently after there not being any such thing because…well there isnt because theres a brain blood barrier so there can not be…an accidental bit of serendipity discovered a complete system of lymph vessels for the brain. They were lost because no one was interested in the connective tissue that dried to the inside of skulls on autopsy.a good hand a curous mind and a very sophisticated scanner image …new page of anatomy books, more transmissions to from brain than our dogma dared to dream.

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