Acupuncture, hot cupping, massages, and strange tasting herbal medicine is merely the tip of the iceberg of traditional Chinese medicine. The thought and philosophy that is behind this culture is fascinating and is the most significant part of this exotic practice. Many of us today may question the effectiveness of these bizarre procedures; however, Chinese medicine contends with Western practices still today, and there is only a growing market for it, not a diminishing one, with the evidence of its effectiveness.
At the heart of Chinese medicine is not only the curing aspect, as this is only one part of the philosophy behind the traditional practice. It is also to bring harmony between the person seeking treatment and nature. Even today, traditional medicine doctors do not use X-rays, do not require the implementation of CAT scans, and avoid use of any high-tech or modern testing techniques to discover the cause of the illness (病因 bìng yīn). The most essential tools for a doctor of Chinese medicine are his senses and fingers, as he/she will be able to identify the state of the illness (病情 bìng qíng) through observation and feeling.
Once the illness is identified, the doctor will determine the right kind of medicine, which takes into account both the various ingredients as well as a combination of amounts. Different sicknesses may have the same ingredients (e.g. garlic, salt, coriander); however, the amount of each component may vary depending on the required attributes of that ingredient. (more on this later)
Above all else, Chinese medicine is simple, natural, and exact. Nothing else is given except what may directly heal what is causing discomfort, yet traditional medication does something larger than life: it assumes that the overall explanation for the disease is not simply because of something inside the body, but a conflict between the person and their environment. By administering a natural cure, the patient will regain a harmonious relationship with their surroundings. In order to maintain the organic characteristics of the medicine, all the ingredients are made together with the least amount of chemical reactions, boiling and cooking them for the shortest length of time as possible.
Yin and Yang – 阴阳 (yīn yáng)
The first step to understanding traditional Chinese medicine is to not only know about Yin and Yang. It is to be able to sense Yin and Yang. This is because virtually everything can be characterized as being either Yin and Yang–even people (women are defined as being Yin and men as Yang), and it would take entirely too long to try and memorize what each substance is, rather than to gain an intuition based on a few guiding principles.
Cold, downward and inwardly focused, dark, has shape and form, opposes motionless stature, weakness, the earth, night, blood, pale face, inside, the roots
Warmth, upward and outwardly focused, bright, shapeless, opposes the function of movement, strength, the heavens, day, air, red face, outside, the tree
An example of Yin and Yang’s use: if the patient is pale in the face, it indicates that the person is experiencing an illness associated with a lack of Yang. The patient should stay away from foods, beverages, and environments that are Yin and should be prescribed medicine that is Yang-centric. In addition, the individual will require more Yang environments to balance his/her relationship with nature.
Five Elements – 五行 (wǔ xíng)
Another vital aspect of traditional medicine is the Five Elements. Under this principle, everything in the world is categorized as being: wood, fire, earth, gold, water (木，火，土，金，水 mù huǒ tǔ jīn shuǐ)–gold can be broadly seen as representing metal. These five kinds of substances do not exist on their own: they live mutually together and strike a balance among one another. The characteristics and relationship between these elements shall be covered in future posts.
Five Organs – 五脏 (wǔ zàng)
Just as there are the Five Elements, there are also the Five Organs: liver, heart, spleen, lungs, and kidneys (肝，心，脾，肺，肾 gān, xīn, pí, fèi, shèn). As in the West, the Chinese were capable of understanding the function of each organ; however, the Chinese discovered that a special relationship existed between the elements and the organs: the liver and wood, the heart and fire, the spleen and earth, the lungs and metal, and the kidneys and water. What is more was the discovery that one element/organ combination is capable of begetting either favorable or unfavorable conditions for other element/organ connections. Treatment for an organ can thus be acquired in a number of ways, either through the sequence of links between the organs or via the correlating element for that particular organ.