Last December, I was brought to a lecture hall in Shanghai in front of about 60 people to be treated for Parkinson’s disease by a Chinese medicine doctor. The doctor had built up quite a following for herself for the techniques she had developed. But I had lived in China for six years and was well aware of some of the outlandish claims made by some followers of traditional Chinese medicine(TCM), so I was more than a little skeptical. But at the request of a friend I agreed to go and promised to be open minded enough to see what if any insight she might have for me.
Little did I know when I walked in there that I would be interrupting her class so she could use me as a live demonstration of her technique, and as a foreign prop to impress her audience. She started by having me sit in a chair while she passed her hand over me to diagnose my qi, letting me know immediately that I wouldn’t be getting anything useful out of this.
Qi is an integral part of TCM, where it roughly translates to ‘vital energy’. It is thought to be something one can learn to harness to improve one’s health. Mastery of one’s qi is the goal of many forms of Chinese martial arts, as well as Qi Gong – a meditative exercise spreading quickly in the west for its health benefits. Though it may have some merit as a psychological lever over the state of a person’s health, as a diagnostic tool I’ll take an x-ray or blood sample over it any day.
After examining my qi, the doctor took out a small container of seeds and started taping them to my ear while the class gathered around. According to some branches of TCM, the entire body can be mapped to pressure points on the ears, hands or feet, and certain seeds can trigger neurological connections between the various parts of the body that stimulate healing. So, for about 20 minutes I sat there patiently as dozens of tiny seeds were pressed into both ears.
She then took out a hand-carved wooden comb and started delivering vibrating pulses against my scalp with it. This went on for about 10 minutes while she explained the mystical powers of the wood it was carved from. I could hear muttered words from those in attendance like “look, he’s getting better” and “wow, it’s working”. I only felt the tremor-like scrapes of the comb against my head.
Afterwards she gave me the comb, told me to do the same thing daily, and gave me a beaded wooden bracelet to wear at all times. Knowing the importance in China of saving face, I did what was custom. I humbly accepted her gifts and told her that I was feeling kind of better. For a moment I thought of trying to convince the crowd that this was all a sham and that if they had any serious conditions they should seek real medical help, but I wasn’t in the mood for trying to dispel centuries of faith in mystical healers. Besides, belief itself can be a powerful healer. I bet many of TCMs success stories can be boiled down to simple placebo effect.
Unfortunately, TCM is filled with such stories. Cases like these make any talk of the therapeutic benefits of it difficult to take seriously. But there is wisdom amidst all that madness.
Chinese medicine is the collected knowledge of thousands of years of trial and error rooted in Daoist principles. Daoism is often over-simplified through the concept of yin and yang or as some mystical harmony between all things. But underlying those sayings is a complexly derived understanding of nature, the universe, and humanities place in it. It is the closest thing China came up with to religion, but it would be wrong to confuse it with religion. It is not about the divine or the supernatural. It is a way to live life, or translated literally, the way to live life.
It comes to us from the most widely revered book in Chinese history, the Dao De Jing. For millennia it formed the spiritual basis of Chinese society but has been distorted in modern times through Mao Ze Dong’s systematic purge of his country’s history. Yet the book is full of aphorisms that still reverberate through Chinese society, some get distilled to people in the West through fortune cookie-like proverbs such as: “Those who speak know nothing, those who know are silent.”
In Daoism, humanity is seen as just another part of nature. This idea can be seen clearly in Chinese art. Walk through almost any Western art gallery and the subject of the majority of paintings will be people. In Chinese art the subject is most often nature. People, if they are depicted at all, are usually just a small part of a much wider landscape.
Daoism is also the philosophical basis from which Chinese medicine was formed. Nature itself is thought of as a self contained system of interrelated parts that has its own methods for correcting anything that goes wrong. Human bodies are seen as a product of nature molded by these same principles. All the different parts of our bodies are deeply connected and cannot be treated in isolation. If something starts going wrong with one part, it is almost always the result of something wrong in the entire system.
Daoism also places an emphasis on healing the mind along with the body. as a result TCM has a long history of seeing every disorder of the body as being connected with some amount of disorder in the mind. A good TCM doctor will treat illness by also trying to identify and treat anything that is wrong with the mind.
Western medicine, on the other hand, has its roots in emergency rooms, where patients come with acute problems and doctors scramble to find solutions to fix them and get the patient out the door. Over time it has developed some pretty remarkable tools that have saved the lives of hundreds of millions. But the model is based on the idea that there are single solutions to almost any health problem, and the society that it has grown up in now forces it to look for solutions that can be squeezed into tiny pills and given to anyone that presents similar symptoms.
This approach has served us well, but Western medicine is now shifting to the treatment of chronic diseases. These are far more complex problems that are usually the result of things going wrong along a number of interrelated pathways. Trying to fix them by finding one solution that can intervene in everything that is going wrong in the body seems to be stretching Western medicine beyond its limits.
Perhaps, instead of pouring billions of dollars and millions of man hours into finding single compounds that can fix these problems, we should be borrowing some ideas from the East and developing a complementary approach to illness. One whose premise is a multidisciplinary therapy that looks at the body as a series of interrelated parts. A marriage between Western medical science and Eastern philosophical tradition could help provide this framework and give us a better shot at curing chronic disease.
One more important lesson that acts as a beating drum throughout the Dao De Jing is an emphasis on personal responsibility. It should not be the job of doctors or society or medical science to save us from ourselves. Individuals need to be accountable for their health and take action to ensure that they live, for lack of a better phrase, in harmony with nature.
For more on Daoism, pick up Stephen Mitchell’s Tao Te Ching.