Notes on Western and Traditional Chinese Medicines


Western medicine is believed to have grown-out of the Greek tradition, and premised upon the logical assessment of the symptoms of a disease, injury or ailment, and the matching of those symptoms with the curative effect of herbs, spices, nutritional food and the positive effects of various exercises and certain harmonious and beautific surroundings. Although this body of medical knowledge was obscured for over a thousand years by theological Christian dogma, it eventually re-emerged in Europe following the renaissance (triggered by the Western discovery of ancient Greek texts in the Islamic libraries of Byzantine), and began its slow ascent to what might be termed ‘modern’ medicine following the European ‘Enlightenment’, and the Industrial Revolution. Although presentation of illness is understood and often emphasised within contemporary Western medicine, the onerous remains the treatment of disease through the relief(or ‘curing’) of symptoms.  In the case of injury or malfunctioning organ, an extensive body of knowledge has been built-up through the observation of cause and effect – with a curative cause leading to a curative effect, but even this is still the treatment of symptoms to relieve distress and stimulate healing.  Western medicine generally works upon the premise that people only need medical attention when they are ill or injured.  At other times, when free of obvious illness and injury, individuals in the West are assumed to be fit and healthy.  For Western medicine, a healthy person is defined as an individual not obviously suffering from illness or disease.

Traditional Chinese medicine (usually written as ‘中药’ or ‘Zhong Yao’), – and referred to in the West by the acronym ‘TCM’ – is premised upon the principle of preventative medicine.  Although logical within its own cultural context, TCM operates from a system of balancing personal and universal energy (氣 – Qi), so as to prevent illness.  Within TCM, illness and disease (as well as injury), is treated as an imbalance of qi energy.  Qi energy is a combination of breath, biochemical electricity flowing through the neural pathways, nutrition from food and drink, the life essence bequeathed by both parents during conception, and a receptive and understanding psychological state.  Lifestyles, of course, differ, and it is this difference that either hinders or enhances  qi energy flow through the body.  A poor nutritional lifestyle coupled with destructive personal habits, logically impedes the qi energy flow so that the inner organs are not adequately nourished or stimulated to work properly.  The idea of TCM is that the qi energy flow is retained in an appropriately ‘balanced’ and ‘harmonious’ manner, and that the treatment of disease is the correct diagnosis of how the qi energy is disrupted, coupled with the appropriate treatment to re-establish the perfect functionality (or ‘qi flow’) of the body.

Whereas the Western model addresses symptomatic presentation, the Chinese model seeks to prevent illness a priori, so that the symptoms of illness never manifest.  However, the draw-back with the preventative model is that it does not take into account communicable disease which can effect anyone regardless of lifestyle or level of fitness. Disease is not necessarily a product of poor life-style, or destructive personal habits, and can be a virus or bacteria communicated through breath, touch or bodily fluids from one person to the next.  Being physically fit does not necessarily protect an individual from the ravishes of modern illnesses.  This implies that an individual can have good qi flow, and yet be struck down by an illness that only then disrupts the qi energy flow.  It is the disease that disrupts the qi energy flow, and not an previously’imbalanced’ qi energy flow that has caused the disease.  This observation does not mean that TCM is ineffective, on the contrary, its focus upon prevention rather than cure can have a beneficial effect by diverting individuals away from poor lifestyle choices, and therefore preventing the generation of conditions that weaken the immune system and render the individual prone to infection.  Furthermore, TCM works in the sense that illness within the body is most definitely a disruption of ‘normal’ bodily function, and that this ‘dysfunction’ needs to be ‘removed’ through appropriate treatment for healing to occur.  In other words. TCM is correct to assume that illness is an imbalance of qi energy, if qi energy is interpreted as the adequate collective functioning of the bodily precesses. Certainly in modern China, both TCM and Western-style hospitals are present offering ‘free’ medical treatment to the Chinese people.  This blends the strengths of the two systems, and Chinese patients can opt for one or the other pathway of treatment, or choose an integrated approach. I have read cases of cancer patients not responding very well to Western-style treatment, but when switching to TCM, their symptoms have reversed and they have stabilised and recovered, but I have also heard of the exact opposite, with Western medicine triumphing over TCM, etc.

It might well be a matter of cultural expectation as to what system works best, but Western medicine, with its strict logical approach, does not require ‘belief’ in its efficacy to be effected.  This means that where time is of the essence, a life-threatening disease might well be better treated by Western medicine, but if there is time for the ‘balancing’ of TCM to take effect, TCM might be preferable, particularly as TCM treatment does not necessarily involve the often destructive side-effects associated with the highly potent drugs used by its Western counter-part.  The problem with the preventative model is that it is virtually impossible to ascertain exactly what diseases have been ‘prevented’ from manifesting.  A TCM practitioner might reply that it is irrelevant as to what specific diseases have ‘not’ manifested, just as long as the individual is disease free and enjoying a healthy life.  On the other hand, Western medicine is demonstrably known to be effective, because, by relieving the symptoms of a specific disease, its methods have obviously ‘cured’ the illnesses in question.  It all comes down to personal choice as to which system an individual thinks is more effective.  Just as Western medicine is readily available in China, TCM practitioners (from China) are found all over the West.  One draw-back in the West is the price of TCM treatment, particularly in European countries that possess Socialised medical systems free at the point of use.  In Socialist China the Chinese people receive their medical care free of charge, but Chinese TCM practitioners in he West act as part of the ‘private’ health profession, although generally speaking, TCM remains outside the remit of private health insurance (as insurers generally do not accept TCM as a legitimate form of ‘scientific’ medicine).  Up until recently, (and perhaps still in a few NHS surgeries), certain aspects of TCM, such as massage, acupuncture and cupping, have been made freely available to British patients.  This means that the British government pays for the British citizen to receive free TCM treatment, providing an effectiveness as been proved.  Although I am not sure, this might be the case in other countries with Socialised medical systems.  It is also the case in the UK that TCM prices vary widely.  A 40 minute acupuncture session in London might cost upwards of £40, whereas in Torquay (in South Devon), the cost is just £17 for the same treatment. Of course, my personal view is that ALL medical treatment, whether Western or TCM, should ‘free’ at the point of use.


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