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

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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

  1. Hi Chris! I just want to add that every person has different health issues. TCM is indeed a one of the oldest method of healing. Using raw,natural herbs are safe, affordable and have virtually no side effects.

    • Right, have as much aconitum as you feel like. Or a million more safe organic drougues that your new ager tells you are harmless! Moderation. Safe used as directed

  2. Chris-
    Thanks for this series!! I am currently living in Hong Kong and really wanted to do acupuncture because I had heard how well it works. After reading your articles explaining how it works biologically, I was sold. I had my first appointment yesterday. I wrote about it on my blog and linked to this series of articles on your blog. I hope that is ok with you.
    Here is a link:
    http://www.wayfinderali.blogspot.hk/2014/09/my-first-experience-with-acupuncture.html

  3. I am not clear on your description of mast cells and the antiinflamatory properties. What I am reading is that they cause inflammation and drugs are developed to inhibit them in inflammatory situations. Can you please explain. I am so glad I looked it up, I almost used your information in a talk that I am giving. I am all for knowing the science of acupuncture but please give me credible information.
    Thank you
    Rose

  4. No one knows how acupuncture works, and it doesn’t matter. I have held an acupuncture license for 30 years. Many have been helped. I don’t care how, I just care about results. These articles are just the latest attempt by the dying paradigm of Western medicine to control, discredit, and eliminate anything that threatens their invasive and fear based medicine.

  5. This article and followings are written with a rare virtue of semplicity and precision. Most of Italian people have to learn from this approach. The concept of Qi explained here is, for me, original and I must think about it. It sounds good and stimulate curiosity. Perfect, thank you Chris.

  6. “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.”

    You are using a poor example: What was the average life expentancy in China at that time? What was the distribution of age at death in the west? Not “average”, but how many of a thousand or ten thousand reached their 70s, 80s and 90s?

  7. I am concerned by the claims made in this piece Chris, especially because I find most of the other articles on this site highly informative. Thank you Joseph for attempting to inject some sense in the discussion. I live in China, and I have observed TCM first hand for 15 years.

    1) It is no exaggeration to say that TCM practitioners here still propagate belief in the equivalent of the four humours derided in the article. One of the pillars of TCM is the “elements” which you also find in Chinese Astrology, and which have zero basis in biology. Thankfully, “western” medicine overcame such beliefs hundreds of years ago. The concept of the elements (or humours) still thrives among the traditionalists in China (which is nearly everyone).

    2) Real doctors in China – the ones who work in real hospitals for example – are not taught TCM. They are taught Western medicine because it works, and TCM doesn’t. Doctors who practice TCM are distinguished by different “medical” degrees, licences, and insurance parameters and are subject to more restrictions than real medical professionals.

    3) TCM is a religion, just like its corollary Feng Shui (and if you believe in THAT, you have a serious problem). It is a VAST religion, and I admit it does contain some real medicine. For example, a percentage of Chinese herbal remedies are in fact valid – not that differently from traditional western medicine. But there is so much garbage that it fairly drowns out what good there is in TCM.

    4) Who cares what the Chinese have believed for 3,000 years? Have you ever been out here? Even after 3 millennia of “medicine” this is STILL the most superstitious country in the world. Astrology, Feng Shui, psychics, and snake-oil are literally everywhere you turn and are considered to be absolutely real. The biggest holiday of the year (lunar new year) is based on the idea that you can transfer luck to someone by giving them special envelopes containing money. This is not a cute tradition like the Western idea of Christmas and its associated exchange of presents; the Chinese ACTUALLY BELIEVE that “good fortune” is being generated in this and a myriad other ways.

    So please, please, by all means attempt to isolate the good that exists in TCM, but stop trying to present it as a legitimate system. Hippocrates performed better medicine 2500 years ago than the vast majority of Chinese medicine practitioners throughout all the ages up to and including today.

    • I am a scientist. In this country that means that I work with and meet a lot of Chinese, well-educated scientists. They do go to TCM doctors because it does work. As Chris has said many times, Western medicine is great for acute trauma (car accidents, severe burns etc.) and serious diseases. Although some diseases are serious because they are the result of years of poor healthcare and poor nutrition — TCM and other holistic modalities might have prevented them.

      • Got any evidence of that? Not sure what country you are talking about, but if you mean China you are incorrect. High level doctors and real scientists in China tend to put their trust in Western medicine, which is what is taught/practiced at universities and hospitals. There is a high degree of chauvinism in China (the automatic belief that anything Chinese must be good) and it is one of the most superstitious mumbo-jumbo places in the world. In spite of this, modern medicine has made great inroads because it works.

        Of course, you can insist on putting your trust in charlatans if you want – the vast majority of the superstitious and uneducated Chinese population does so – but try, as a scientist, to explain the rationale for such “medicine” and you’ll quickly realize that it’s pure nonsense. Avoid eating duck to strengthen your bones? Eat snake meat to prevent feeling chilly? Have some tiger penis powder to rev up your sex drive?

        Complete nonsense. There is a clear test for Western medicine (it either works or it doesn’t) and no test at all for preventive TCM, only hand-waving, the placebo effect, superstitious belief, and post hoc rationalizations. Despite all this purportedly amazing and widespread TCM they have in China, and powerful dietary advantages (e.g., green tea and white rice consumption, no soy and corn oil everywhere) the Chinese do not enjoy especially good health and die earlier than countries that don’t waste time on TCM.

        I am not saying Western medicine is perfect at all. Look at the lipid hypothesis and coronary heart disease for a stunning example of anti-scientific idiocy in action, or the foolish dietary recommendations that might as well be framed as knock-knock jokes. But Western medicine at least has a logical framework for assessing efficacy of treatment, even if it is occasionally subverted by bad scientists.

        • You must be a great specialist of chinese medicine with rich knowledge to know all that and to come to that conclusion. How many years have you bern practised chinese medicine and where did you learn it? I am Interested in following your education on that topic. Because otherwise your arguments on that medicine couldn’t be taken very seriously.

          But even in respect of such big knowledge, let me tell you that chinese medicine is not just eating a tigers penis. I don’t do that. If you learned and practised that, I understand your conclusion, but I learned something different. And I am telling you this as a “real” western and chinese medical doctor, whatever this should be in your terms.

          There are some simple things that everybody can observe, and this has nothing to do with believe or placebo, nor is it not fitting with modern physiology. I can put a needle in your leg in the right spot and in seconds the trapezius muscle will lower its tone. If you put the needle in the wrong place on the leg, nothing will happen. everybody can try and observe it, and it also works if you don’t believe in it.

          You also mentioned studies, which studies? Do you man analgetic physiology effects, that are well observed by pomeranz for example, or are you talking about clinical studies? Which one?

          There are many bad clinical studies, both chinese and western. So I don’t know what you are talking about.

          • You stumbled into the fallacy of authority (challenging me on my qualifications when they are irrelevant to the argument) and then spent the rest of the post hand-waving about unconnected factoids. So acupuncture has some analgesic qualities – big deal, so does cold water or willow bark but that does not construe evidence for elemental medicine, does it? You may think YOUR interpretation of TCM is somehow superior to that of other less enlightened practitioners (e.g. the vast number of morons who perpetuate the trade in penises and other weird substances) but that distinction is in fact very weak, since the entire framework of TCM is deeply flawed and unscientific. It is based on similarly fundamentally wrong understanding of nature that Europeans used to hold (e.g., the 4 humours).

            • Again, you mentioned facts, but you are just talking and talking and don’t bring on any facts. And as you mentioned the 4 Humors, now I know what stage of Education in chinese Medicine you have and what your arguments are worth. The Concept of the 4 humors does not equal the chinese concept of the 5 evolving phases. The Concept of the 4 Humors is a causal atomistic and Material Concept. The 5 phases Concept is not a material concept, but a Concept of nonlinear relations in an Auto-Feed-back Cycle of Natural rhythms. The chinese never had an atomistic Model of nature and thats different from the greek cukture. You don’t know what an evolving phase is, but criticise chinese medicine as an unscientific Concept. You talking is really stupid and unscientific.

              • Predictably, more flailing around with nothing more substantial than a classic ad hominem argumentum against me. It is not incumbent on me to prove that TCM is NOT scientific – it is incumbent on YOU to prove that it IS scientific. But, like every other supporter of unscientific claptrap, you cannot even define what TCM is – heck, you haven’t even made a single coherent argument!

                As far as your 5 phases are concerned, there is no epistemic difference between that philosophy and that of the 4 humours I mentioned. NONE. Your claim that the 4 humours are atomist is deeply ignorant, since the atomic hypothesis of Democritus lost to the philosophy of humours, thanks largely to the influence of Aristotle. This delayed the progress of science by millennia. The Western world would not return to atoms for eons – but thankfully it did, which is why Western science actually, you know, works. Demonstrably.

                Now stop wasting time with more nonsense and either provide factual counter-arguments that directly address the status quo of TCM (which you may read up on here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traditional_Chinese_medicine) or just go whine about “evolving phases” and other unsubstantiated unscientific garbage to someone more willing to swallow empty claims.

                • So you think you know and understand what science is? Again big words, big mouth, a lot of talking, but unfortunately nothing of worth inside. You’re a funny guy, I have laughed a lot about your comment. I have to disappoint you, I can give you a definition about chinese medicine. Beside that, there is a big epistemic difference between the galenic medicine and the concept of the 4 humors and the concept of the evolving phases, exactly they are contrarary, but I think it is waste of time to explain that to somebody like you and I don’t even know why I should do this. Perhaps its better you start to eat penis again. I don’t have to prove anything to you, not even to somebody who doesn’t know anything about chinese or western medicine. You are talking about something, that you don’t know and you don’t argue on that, nor do you have the knowledge to do that. If you want to argue on that topic, then first start to go to school, then you can come back. Somebody who mixes chinese medicine with homoeopathy, and galenic medicine is a funny guy that can’t be taken seriously and hasn’t the brain to understand anything about that topic.

              • And, lest you think I am being unfair to Chinese tradition, let me assure you that I hold all such quackery from all over the world in similar regard. Western tradition has no shortage of extreme foolishness:

                http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/naturopathy-embraces-the-four-humors/

                and you only need travel to countries like Austria or Germany to see the pernicious ignorance at work through scams like homeopathy, which casual observers might even mistake for a legitimate branch of medicine!

                • Thats not very impressive, your arguments miss the topic. This has nothing to do with chinese medical concepts. So you could also bring on an article about tennis and compare it with chinese medicine, as you did it with your most favored topic, the penis. Again, you fail in thinking galenic medicine equals chinese medicine, and thats really a very stupid conclusion.

                • No Matt, the one who fails to understand is you. Try reading a little harder, you might eventually succeed. Bottom line: despite lots of hand waving, you have not made a single coherent argument in defence of the vodoo you insist on calling medicine. Try fight your cognitive dissonance and actually provide something to work with.

        • According with the science of nonlinear, complex, dynamic systems the world is governed by relationships and interactions. Western Medicine is, like everything else, linear. Linear concept and practices “isolate” something (that usually is an interface between inside and outside) from the nonlinear sea of things, and tries to copy (replicate) a natural aspect. How could you think that such a linear concept works? It never does, but we live with the illusion that it does.
          On the opposite, TMC deals with proportionalities within a network of nodes that is the reality. Probably not always the TMC is genuine, and not always will provide a good result.
          I said before about the research on Primo Vascular System that is intended, among other things, to unveil the workings of acupuncture practice.
          I am impressed that no one on this site have any idea about the research on PVS and complex networks.

  8. Hi, Chris
    Interesting reading.

    I am a Tai Chi Quan and Chi Kung practitioner. I have been finding answers to the unexplainable TCM from the modern science. What a coincidence! I had come up with the same conclusion as you did. I had written some articles since 2008. You may find them interesting in the site as indicated below.

    http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/user/31611

  9. If “The notion of a meridian system outside of the vasculature was a creation of Soulie de Morant.”… how come you find drawings of energetic channels and chakras for example on old Tibetan Medicine Thangkas…?
    Why is the “Western World” so eager to explain everything in scientifically measurable ways? Is that Descarte’s ghost still haunting us?

  10. Thank goodness…at last! I am an acupuncturist & what I really hate is hearing endless waffle about wellbeing & blocked energy. For me to know exactly what processes I am affecting with each point I use makes my treatment more beneficial. Nothing wrong with a bit of science 😉 I’m reading with interest.

  11. Chris,
    While I am happy to see you willing to engage the subject of Chinese medicine, to base your conclusions on one book is bound to be highly biased. There are many more books with more engaging explanations. Western anatomy and physiology is important, but at this point in time has not succeeded in explaining the channel phenomenon. It will take several more decades of engagement with Chinese medicine before it can be understood in biomedical terms, and even then Chinese medicine will transcend that understanding.

    Z’ev Rosenberg, L. Ac.
    Chair, Department of Herbal Medicine
    Pacific College of Oriental Medicine,
    San Diego, Ca.

    • There was no such thing as “channel phenomenon”. A phenomenon is observable but the “channel phenomenon” was not. Therefore, we must conclude that it was only the imaginary part of the Chinese Taoists, at the time, where there was no modern scientific knowledge available for explanation. Nowadays, we have the knowledge and technologies; why not link them together for a better understand of the unexplainable subject TCM…??? TCM is about healing the human body, why should we stay away from physiology to have a scientific back up for TCM rather than just left it hinging in thin air…???

  12. My understanding is that advanced surgery was undeveloped in China, largely because of unavailability of anaesthetics. Superficial surgery was clearly practised, indeed there is a clear overlap between early acupuncture and practices such as lancing of boils etc. And a famous illustration shows Hua Tuo performing surgery on the arm of a wounded general while he played chess. However dissection is another matter. Remember that the world’s first textbook of forensic medicine (The Washing Away of Wrongs) was written in 13th century China. And one of the Difficulties in the Nan Jing (from around 2nd or 3rd century) concerns the weight of the liver and the lung and the effects of drowning on them (I don’t have reference to hand). Chinese science is probably the least known and least respected in the West.

  13. Hi Chris,

    A very interesting set of articles. I just have one question in regards to the following information:

    ‘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”

    This is the first time i have heard of Chinese Physicians performing dissections before western physicians. The general understanding is that Chinese Medicine forbade dissections. Could you cite some texts that discuss this. Much of the arguments against acupuncture rely on the ‘fact’ that Chinese Medicine was a medical system developed before dissection and that Chinese Medicine physicians had very little knowledge of internal anatomy and physiology. Interesting to hear another perspective.

    Thanks, Natasha.

  14. Replying regarding Chris C’s request for an online version of the study:
    I haven’t found it online. I have university access to journals and got a copy there.

    I sent him a pdf directly — if anyone wants it, please let me know.

    Here’s an editorial by the same researchers found online which summarizes the research:
    http://jnm.snmjournals.org/cgi/reprint/33/3/409.pdf

    They list a number of other citations (mostly in French) regarding similar research.

    Some interesting things to note:
    – it has also been reproduced by other researchers (Romania, France, China, Spain)
    – this has been reproduced in animals (specifically Beagles, in Spain)
    – if you block off one arm with a tourniquet you will stop the migration of the tracer along the channel, but if you stimulate the point, you can increase the speed of migration of the tracer in the OTHER arm. So there’s a physical migration, but the stimulation seems to cause an electrical (or chemo-electric if you prefer) signal to the other side, stimulating the corresponding contralateral channel.

  15. I want to apologize for coming in here with guns blazing. I’d remove my comments but I cannot or don’t know how. I’m a little bitter at wasting $20K on studying TCM. Feel free to remove my earlier comments. Thanks.

  16. You mean “studies”. I couldn’t name them all. It sounds like you’re suggesting that TCM is efficacious for all diseases which even no accupuncturist would maintain. The Cochrane Review is a good place to start.