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Introduction to Chinese Medicine (TCM)

Traditional Chinese Medicine is a system of traditional medical practices that have been developed over thousands of years. TCM is standard procedure throughout China and includes treatments such as acupuncture, Tui na massage and cupping. TCM was systematized in the 1950s under the People's Republic of China, and is strongly influenced by Chinese religion and philosophical ideas such as a balance of Yin / Yang and the flow of qi. Today TCM is practiced all across China.


According to legend, the Yellow Emperor (China's first historical ruler) composed the Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon (or the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine) between 2698-2596 BCE. This is the earliest known Chinese medical text containing theories, diagnostic methods and treatments of illnesses.

During the Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD) various physicians such as Zhang Zhongjing authored medical texts, and others such as Hua Tuo used physical, surgical and herbal treatments to cure headaches, dizziness, fevers, coughs and colds, and to anesthetize patients during surgery. Many methods of treatment used today in Traditional Chinese Medicine were already in place thousands of years before: Huang-fu Mi, a practitioner in the Jin dynasty, used acupuncture and moxibustion, and quoted the Yellow Emperor in his writings.

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) Emperor Gaozong commissioned a compilation of medical texts that documented nearly 900 herbal treatments taken from metals, minerals, plants, animals and so on. This refinement and development of TCM continued throughout the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties, with theory and practice developing over time. After 1950 Chinese medicine became systematically regulated and practiced, and in modern times TCM hospitals can be found in every city in China.

Traditional Chinese medicine has increasingly come into contact with Western medicine and associated culture, and both have gone some way towards assimilating the other. TCM has gradually spread west, as many people find TCM practices to be effective for chronic or routine ailments such as flu and allergies. TCM practitioners also take a holistic view of illness and the body, as opposed to the symptom-based approach of Western medicine which traditionally uses medication for treatment. TCM has been shown to be effective in treating chronic functional disorders such as migraines and osteoarthritis.

Theory / philosophy

Traditional Chinese medicine is largely based on the philosophical idea that the human body is a universe complete unto itself, with a set of sophisticated systems working in harmony to maintain good health. Illness or sickness is the result of disharmony in the body, with one or more organs functioning in the wrong way. Such an unbalance can result from internal or external factors.

TCM has a unique model of the body that is largely concerned with the meridian system, a series of interconnected lines that regulate the flow of qi, or life-force, around the body. Qi is a key concept in TCM, and is taken by most to mean an invisible energy that permeates all living things.

Other important ideas in TCM include Yin and Yang, or softness and hardness; jing (meaning 'essence'); emotions; and the soul or spirit. Each organ in the body is not just a material piece of flesh but functions to transform and transport elements in the body, as well as influencing aspects of mental thinking.

Much of TCM philosophy comes from the same philosophy that informs Taoist and Buddhist thought, and posits that the life and activity of an individual human being has a fundamental relationship with the surrounding environment at every conceivable level.


Traditional Chinese medicine diagnosis is based on an overall observation of symptoms. There are five main methods involved; observing; asking; touching; hearing; smelling. The touching part is particular important, with many Chinese patients referring to a doctor's appointment as 'going to have my pulse felt'.

A TCM doctor will observe a patient's face, hair, posture, walk, eyes, ears and tongue (and vein of the index finger of small children). They will ask a patient about their effects of their problem and also ask detailed questions about their family, living environment, personal habits, diet, emotions, sleep, exercise, and any other factors that might provide insight into an individual's condition. They will smell a patient's breath during the course of the examination and listen to the tone and texture of their voice. They will also palpitate a patient's radial artery in several different positions.


There are many different treatments involved in TCM.

Acupuncture is perhaps the most well-known, and involves a practitioner inserting fine needles into specific points on a patient's body. Generally around a dozen acupressure points are needled in one session, although this depends on the patient and practitioner. The intended effect of this is to unblock the acupuncture meridian and improve the flow of qi around the body.

Moxibustion is a treatment performed in accord with acupuncture, as it involves heating a cylinder of herbs above the acupuncture needle once it has been inserted. The intended effect of this is to warm the needle and to further increase the beneficial effects on the meridian.

Food and dietary recommendations are often made in relation to a patient's individual condition. The 'Five Flavours' theory holds that different foods have a different effect on the body, for example warming or cooling functions. A balanced diet will balance all five flavours and be beneficial to health.

Herbal medicine is where combinations of single herbs are prescribed for individual patients. The herbs are combined into formulas for specific ailments, and can contain anywhere between three to twenty-five herbs. Each herb has one or more of the five flavours / functions, similar to dietary therapy. The use of various mushrooms such as reishi and shiitake is one example of herbal medicine.

Cupping is a type of Chinese massage, which consists of several glass 'cups' being placed on the body. A match is lit and placed inside the cup, and is removed before the cup is applied, therefore allowing the cup to stick to the skin and draw out impurities.

Scratching is a type of massage with a smooth edge, normally a ceramic spoon-like tool, used on pre-oiled skin. The spoon is moved over muscles or acupuncture meridians to deliver a firm massage. It is normally used to treat muscle and tendon injuries as well as headaches, poor circulation, bronchitis and so on.

Tui na medical massage is similar to acupressure, which is administered to a fully-clothed patient. It works on damaged muscles and tissues, using a variety of techniques such as thumb presses, stretching and percussive taps.

Physical exercises such as Tai Chi are often prescribed by TCM practitioners for health benefits, stress relief, an improved immune system and so on. Tai Chi and other exercises such as Qigong are increasingly popular in the West.

Some TCM doctors may also utilize esoteric methods such as Fengshui, but these are not a normal part of TCM practice and are usually the result of personal beliefs.

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