Both western and Chinese medicines study the same object — the human body. They aim to discover what we are really like; why we sometimes get ill; how the illnesses develop and change; how can we combat and prevent them. The results of these studies however are very different from each other.
Apart from differences in terminology, where, for example, the term ‘mucus’ in western medicine, is referred to as ‘dampness’ in Chinese medicine, there is a fundamental difference in the way in which the human body is actually understood — what we are made of, for example.
In western medicine we have constructed our picture of the anatomy using the very latest scientific technology. We observe that we are composed of skin, muscles, blood, the lymph-systems, bones, organs, nerves etc. and on a microscopic level our very cells, DNA etc. These findings are scientifically proven and are not to be refuted.
We use such knowledge in finding cures for various diseases, whether through antibiotics for infections, creams for skin problems, inhalers for expiratory conditions, and anti acid medicine for stomach problems. Such methods may have previously worked on occasion, but not any more. Here, I take the case of the diminishing utility of antibiotics as prescribed against TB, for example, a re-emerging major infection of our time. Moreover, this is not to mention the fact that we are almost totally defenceless against viral infections.
Why is this so? Seeing as we consider ourselves in possession of such sturdy, scientifically justified knowledge of the human body should we not, surely, be able to obtain more satisfactory treatment results? It is here that we must revert to the basics; the foundations of our knowledge and theories about our human body. We must re-examine from what sources our information about our body was originally derived.
In western medicine, our knowledge of the human body is derived from the study of dead specimens and dead human tissue. The information we get from these dead samples do not represent all that which could be derived from living humans. Therefore, it is understandable that in transferring only knowledge based on dead samples to the process of developing cures for problems of living persons, we cannot expect the results to be very satisfactory.
Here, we question what the difference is between that of a dead and living body. Of course the difference appears to be very trivial, but in terms of western anatomical analysis both states are essentially the same, in the sense that whether dead or alive, the body is still composed of the same skin, muscles, bones, organs etc. What therefore is the difference?
Chinese medicine would respond by saying that the difference consists in the fact that the dead body is one without ‘energy’ and a living body is one with ‘energy’. In other words, the dead body is one where ‘energy’ is missing, and in losing all its ‘energy’ a living body dies. In Chinese medicine, this ‘energy’ is called Qi, and is roughly translated to mean an ‘air-like substance’ or ‘life-power’.
The incorporation of the concept of ‘energy’ or Qi is the fundamental difference between the ideologies of western and Chinese medicine. In western medicine there is no such concept because the existence of Qi cannot be seen under a microscope and cannot thus be proven experientially.
In Chinese medicine the Qi is considered a major constituent of the body, of each organ and of the functions in both, even though, admittedly, it cannot be directly seen. It is invisible to the naked eye but resides in every part of our body and forms the essential building block of our system. It is the eternal ingredient and quintessential essence of the body.
In the same way that the air on earth pervades through our planet, Qi can be compared to an air-like substance that saturates all the cells in our body, giving life. In this way, Chinese medicine studies the body, from examples of living bodies and for the purpose of healing living bodies.
The cures prescribed by Chinese medicine, essentially “heal the body from within and rely solely upon the body itself.” Its theories and effects have been, and are increasingly put under scientific enquiry, yielding proof that shows it to be, incredibly beneficial, effective, long lasting and popular. It is simple, it makes senses and moreover, it works.
In Chinese medicine the Qi has two most important aspects. Firstly it must be in a state of flux and always be in a state of flux. That is our main criteria for assessing if one is dead or not; by whether the body is able to move. If this Qi movement is too slow or too fast or in wrong direction, it will result in illness.
To remedy such problems, we can use acupuncture or herbs to speed up or slow down the movement, or modify the direction of the flow as required to regain equilibrium. Secondly, the Qi must be in a constant balance. That is, there must not be too much or too little. It must not be too hot or too cold, (as some organ energies can be over-heating or not heated enough). In such cases, we aim to tonify the organs or reduce the over-heating for example by means of nourishment or an exercise of purging them through bowel movement, urine and/or perspiration.
The Qi moves within the body along tubes which we call ‘channels’, upon which we base the theory of acupuncture. Along these channels there exist ‘pump stations’ where we locate our ‘acupuncture points’. Each organ has its own channels and also links with other organs through these channels to form a bodily network. Because the networks are so very complicated, the places where many of our problems originate are not necessarily located at the same places where their symptoms appear on our body; take for example headaches, tinnitus, and hair loss.
It could be that in these instances in other locations of the body one could have liver Qi stagnation causing headaches, or kidney Qi deficiency causing tinnitus, and both liver and kidney Qi deficiency for example, that causes hair loss. So the western approach of prescribing pain killers for headaches, treating the ears for tinnitus, and special shampoos for hair loss only touches the surface of the real problem. Chinese medicine instead focuses on the root of each problem. By balancing the Qi of these organs, the symptoms will disappear spontaneously, of their own accord. This, we call ‘self healing’.
The problems of the Qi can be detected by checking the pulse, tongue, facial complexion, nails, skin and so on because these are places one can check the channel’s networks. Often the functional changes happen before the structure changes or the body’s Qi changes before any real symptom of illness is apparent.
For example, long term stagnation of liver Qi could result finally, in a liver tumour and cancer. Therefore by balancing the Qi early on, you can also prevent some serious illnesses, without having to wait for the results of some scan to tell you that you already have one, when it is far too late to do something about it. In fact, the most advanced scan that exists now, can still only detect cancer when it has reached the size of 3-5 cube mm, when it is already comprised of a few million cancer cells and is very deadly.
The latest research in physics, consistently prove that our universe is fundamentally made of energy. It consists of negative and positive parts. This, we call in ancient Chinese medicine, ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ Qi. With the daily advancements of science, I hope that one day, we will have some clearer way of proving the existence of Qi, and that we will be better equipped at measuring its presence, as well as being able to develop many new cures for the ever increasing list of incurable illnesses in western medicine with our new knowledge of it.
Both western and Chinese medicines have a great knowledge of their own. But now it is time to share with each other, combining and fusing ancient wisdom with modern knowledge in laying a new path in our shared combat against illness for mankind.
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Centre of Traditional Chinese Medicine Health, Biological and Environmental Sciences Middlesex University Enfield campus