Charlatanism or a real alternative: What is traditional Chinese medicine? | Sciences | In-depth science and technology report | DW


It was crazy. I had to prepare for an exam, but the 10-year-old daughter of my Japanese host family had a cold and was sniffling and snorting loudly – all the time.

“Blow your nose, drink hot water with lemon juice and don’t walk around the house barefoot,” I advised him. Because that’s how I learned to do it.

My host family looked at me without understanding. “What do his feet have to do with his nose?” And why a lemon? asked my foster mom. “The humidity, the wind and the cold have penetrated her body,” she added, “so you have to fight them with heat-generating food.”

She went on to say that even hot water with lemon juice in it is “cold food” because it adds more cold to the body. In addition, the acid has a contracting effect. The result being: the disease would remain trapped in the body even longer.

Read more: Healthy eating in traditional Chinese medicine

We all looked at each other in disbelief.

The girl then ate rice soup with spring onions and radishes – and quickly became healthy again.

If she had had the flu, by the way, her parents would have made tofu miso soup. It would have had a cooling effect, and it would have helped her body fight the internal heat (something different from what Westerners mean by “fever”), according to my host family.

A clash of worlds

This experience marked me the fundamental differences between Western medicine and, in this case, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) (which the Japanese also use).

It also demonstrated why followers of one method fight so fiercely: They mutually deny the effectiveness of many of the other’s treatments.

And the divide is not just between East and West. An example is the biochemist and researcher in molecular genetics Fang Zhouzi, a renowned Chinese researcher who did his postgraduate studies in the United States. In 2008 he argued in Science magazine that traditional Chinese medicine is not based on science, but on mysticism, magic and anecdotes.

Meanwhile, representatives of the West Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) describe methods of treating TCM as pseudoscientific, claiming that their basic concepts contradict scientific principles and lack empirical evidence. The fact that TCM has enjoyed a long tradition, they argue, says nothing about its actual medical effectiveness.

Read more: Chinese medicine is growing in popularity

Confiscated bear bile from China believed to relieve liver and gallbladder disease

Proponents of traditional Chinese medicine, on the other hand, criticize Western medicine saying that it is not very focused, or that EBM is often ineffective or does not focus on people as a whole. Additionally, they point out that TCM includes a holistic approach – an approach that cannot be empirically proven.

Finally, where supporters of EBM accuse the Chinese government of promoting TCM for the sole purpose of opening new sales markets in the West for Chinese manufacturers, representatives of traditional medicine claim that Western drugs are totally dependent. of the powerful pharmaceutical industry.

Read more: Chinese medicine can have a pharmacological effect “but it is not a cure”

A healer applying suction cups to a patient

Cupping and acupuncture are increasingly popular in the West

Different approaches

If Western medicine is trying to find the cause of a disease, TCM has traditionally been used for prevention, chronic disease, and pain. When it can’t cure the cause, it treats the symptoms.

According to TCM, the vital energy Qi lives in all living things and keeps both Yin and Yang poles in balance. Yin stands for peace, relaxation and cold. Yang, on the other hand, represents activity, dynamics and warmth.

In the human body, Qi is mainly found in the organs. When it passes through the body, it does so through the Qi channels. These channels run from head to toe, pole to pole, much like the Earth’s meridian system. Everything is controlled, transported, nourished, warmed and protected by this vital energy.

As long as Qi can flow unhindered, an individual is healthy. If the energy flow weakens, you get sick. Balance applies not only to the human body, but also to the social being, to the whole environment and even to the cosmos.

Holistic diagnosis and therapy

To be diagnosed, a patient is interviewed and examined in detail. However, only areas of the body that are visible and not covered by clothing are considered. In addition to the posture, healers examine the eyes, tongue, and visible areas of skin. At different points and in the three different depths (Cun, Guan and Chi), the pulse is measured and divided into 28 different qualities.

The patient then takes herbal, animal or mineral remedies several times a day as therapy. The treatment is partly accompanied by acupuncture, thermal treatments, massages or meditative exercises, such as Tai Chi and Qigong.

Read more: Medicinal tiger bone and rhino horns from China: tradition or parody?

Pangolins killed for medical market, confiscated by police in Indonesia

Crushed keratin scales are said to help mothers produce milk, increase potency, and cure arthritis or cancer

Dangerous for animals and humans

These naturopathic medicines are very popular, regardless of their effectiveness. This has dramatic effects on some animal species, as drug makers use them as ingredients. Tigers, snow leopards, Asian black bears, rhinos, Saiga antelopes, some species of pangolins, sawfish, some seahorses and various species of turtles are threatened with extinction.

However, many patients can also be at risk – and not just because some very serious conditions are ineffective treated. There are often considerable problems with drugs due to impurities, mold infestation, exposure to heavy metals and pesticides, even if the production and dosage are precisely prescribed.

In 2013, a study of Chinese herbal medicines found pesticide residues classified by the WHO as hazardous or extremely hazardous in 17 of 36 samples. Twenty-six of them had residues above the maximum levels allowed in the EU.

Despite the many irreconcilable positions, both sides have realized that the two methods can complement each other in a meaningful way.

Acupuncture, for example, is now established in Western medicine.

And in today’s China, Western medicine and TCM are mostly used together.

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