Traditional Chinese medicine

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A modern-style TCM shop in Hong Kong

Traditional Chinese Medicine (or TCM) refers to the theories and practices of diagnosis and healing developed historically in China. Its influence spread to neighbouring countries such as Korea and Japan, and largely shaped their traditional medicine. More recently, TCM has become popular as an alternative medicine in Europe and North America.

Like much Chinese lore, such as feng shui and the martial arts, Chinese medicine is based on the qi (or chi, 氣) principle of energy. Qi is said to be channelled through a complex system of meridians in the body, and illnesses are believed to be related to blocked or unbalanced flow of qi.[1] Common treatments include acupressure, acupuncture, acupuncture bloodletting, reflexology, and herbal medicine, though treatments can also be of inorganic, animal or even mythologic origin (clawed human, one-footed monster, sprite/elf/naiad, and dryad).[2] In one study, 260 TCM products sold in California were analyzed for adulterants: 32% contained drugs and/or heavy metals.[3]

Mythical origins[edit]

Fuxi (or Paoxi, 伏羲) was a legendary ruler to whom many fundamental aspects of domestic life (animal domestication, cooking, etc.) have been ascribed, including medical philosophy and the I Ching.[4]:6 One of the Three Sovereigns,Wikipedia's W.svg who is variously considered as deity or a god-emperors is considered by the the Chinese to be the founder of Chinese medicine: Shennong (神農 or 神农) is claimed to have discovered herbalism and to have written the first treatise on herbs, the Shennong Pen-tsao ChingWikipedia's W.svg (神農本草經).[4]:6-7 In addition, he was said to have discovered, or invented, tea, the hoe, the plow, the axe, wells, irrigation, preserving seeds in boiled horse urine, the 24 hours of the day, the calendar, the weekly farmers' market, the harvest festival, pulse measuring, moxibustion and acupuncture.[5] Additionally, he was said to have known the secret to immortality and the transmutation of substances into gold.

Religion was deeply intertwined with Chinese medicine, particularly in the earliest years, and it included sorcery, divination (I Ching), astrology[4]:12-14 In ancient times, doctors were referred to as priest-doctors (Wu I).[4]:13 Spirituality remains an important part of Chinese medicine[6]

The Chinese have a reverence for authority,[4]:86 in large part due to the "Five Relationships" of Confucianism. This likely a source of resistance to change and acceptance of evidence-based medicine.

Proto and Pseudo-Science[edit]

While today, what has worked in the 'fields' of herbalism has been added to pharmacology and what hasn't worked has been discarded, it should be noted that prior to the scientific method, there really wasn't a good way to gather reliable information. Various medicine men and priests and the like would have made an observation and passed it on to other healers, but not have the resources or education to actually test these observations. Some of the herbs and such would work (for example, willow bark tea), others did not. But without the resources of a modern university research department, better forms of acquiring knowledge weren't really practical. Various herbal and folk remedies that relied on limited observation and lacked rigorous testing were protosciences rather than pseudo-sciences. That is, "not yet sciences", rather than "never sciences".

There were indeed some important discoveries made by Chinese medicine. The most important of which was "variolation"; exposing someone to a weak form of smallpox to prevent that person succumbing later on to a deadlier form of smallpox. This folk remedy happened to work, and spread to India, then to the Ottoman Empire and then to Europe. This makes vaccine denialists that adhere to other forms of TCM a rather strange breed.

However, just because one remedy works does not mean all the others work. Each remedy or herb gets tested; those that work become part of medicine, while those that don't get discarded. Keeping the remedies that are unproven or have been proven not to work is instead pseudoscience.


The Bencao GangmuWikipedia's W.svg (本草綱目) or Compendium of Materia Medica was first published in the 1578 by Li ShizhenWikipedia's W.svg (李時珍). An early book was written in 1505 by the physician Liu Wentai under orders from Emperor Xiaozong, titled Bencao Pinhui Jingyao (Collection of the Essential Medical Herbs of Materia Medica), but this book was not available to the general public and is not now well-known.[7][8]

The Bencao Gangmu has remained in use continuously since its publication, and was replaced in China by the 10-volume Zhong Hua Ben Cao (中华本草, Encyclopedia of Chinese Materia Medica) in 1999.[9] The now-official Pharmacopoeia of the People's Republic of China was published in 2005.[10]

Controversial ingredients used in TCM[edit]

TCM ingredients can range from common plants, such as dandelion, persimmon, and mint, to weird or even dangerous stuff. Some of the more revolting things found in TCM include genitals of various animals (including dogs, tigers, seals, oxen, goats, and deer), bear bile (commonly obtained by means of slow, inhumane extraction methods), and (genuine) snake oil.[2][11][12] It is worth noting that the sale and use of all of these animal ingredients is illegal in many parts of Asia, Europe, North America and almost everywhere else. New methods of combating the use of these illegal animal parts have been discussed.[13] Urine, feces, placenta and other human-derived medicines were traditionally used[2] but some may no longer be in use.[14]

Some of the dangerous ingredients include lead,[15] calomel (mercurous chloride), cinnabar (red mercuric sulfide),[16] asbestos,[17][18] realgar (arsenic),[19] and birthwort (Aristolochia spp.).[20] Bloodletting is also practiced. Bizarrely, lead oxide, cinnabar, and calomel are said to be good for detoxification.[21][22][23][24][25] Lead oxide is also supposed to help with ringworms, skin rashes, rosacea, eczema, sores, ulcers, and intestinal parasites, cinnabar allegedly helps you live longer,[23][24] and asbestos is used (including in powder form) for treating impotence, spermatorrhea, premature ejaculation, colic, muscle cramps, prostatitis, endometritis, as well as for kidney-warming and yang-fortifying. Admittedly, the amounts of cinnabar and calomel used in TCM are small enough that the damage they cause is usually reversible.[25]

A 1998 study of 260 imported Asian patent medicines collected in California found that 14 had labels with declared pharmaceutical ingredients.[26] Of 243 products that were chemically analyzed, 17 had undeclared pharmaceuticals (including ephedrine, chlorpheniramine, methyltestosterone, and phenacetin).[26] Of the 251 products that were chemically analyzed, 24 contained lead in the range of 10 to 319 ppm, 35 contained arsenic in the range of 20.4 to 114,000 ppm, and 35 contained mercury in the range of 22.4 to 5070 ppm.[26] By way of comparison, the United States Pharmacopoeia limits heavy metals in pharmaceuticals to 30 ppm in most cases.[26]

Sites selling or promoting TCM remedies often lump all their products or recommended treatments under the generic term "herbs". However, many of these herbal products are really of mineral or otherwise non-herbal origin. These "herbs" are sometimes listed by their Chinese or mineral names (which people don't really recognize). Instead of listing "lead", they list a "herb" called mi tuo seng or "galena"; instead of listing asbestos, they list yang qi shi, and so on.

Lethal substitution[edit]

TCM allows for the substition of ingredients that have the same or similar names in Chinese.[27] In Belgium, a weight-loss spa using TCM herbs gave its clients herbal supplements containing birthwort, and as a result, more than 100 out of 1800 of its patients developed kidney failure, and several also developed urothelial and kidney cancers. In this case, the relatively safe Stephania tetrandra (漢防己, Han Fang Ji) was intended for the clients, but the lethal Aristolochia fangchi (廣防己, Guang Fang Ji) was given to them instead.[28]

In China[edit]

Traditional medicine was standardised in mainland China under the People's Republic of China, and earlier medicine is sometimes referred to as Classical Chinese Medicine. TCM continues to be widely practised, supported and studied in China, and is often integrated with scientific (or "Western") medicine. There are many universities of Chinese medicine in China, some being regarded as among the best medical universities of any kind in the country.

In the West[edit]

Traditional Chinese medicine has become popular in North America and Europe during recent decades, largely due to the growing popularity of CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) and the New Age preoccupation with other Eastern woo such as feng shui, Chinese astrology, Reiki and Zen Buddhism. As with most of these fads, the most common variants of TCM popularised in the west tend to be simplified and bastardised versions of authentic TCM, and are often bundled with other forms of CAM. For example, Chinese medicine centers in the UK and USA often offer non-Chinese complementary therapies such as hypnotherapy and homeopathy, alongside Chinese herbalism and acupuncture.

Environmental impact[edit]

"Dragon bones" (骨龍) from a reprint of a 1505 CE edition of the Materia Medica by Liu Wentai

In TCM, endangered species such as rhinos, pangolins, sharks, seahorses, manta rays, lions, leopards and tigers are highly prized;[2] rhino horns are considered panaceas which can cure everything from arthritis to cancer, even though studies have shown they do nothing.[29][30][31][32][33] Because of this demand, poachers hunt these animals for their body parts in order to sell them to TCM users. Since the 1970s, rhino populations have dropped 90%;[29] while this number may not be entirely due to TCM, it can plausibly be said that TCM is significantly contributing to the extinction of endangered species by encouraging the use of these clearly ineffective as well as illegally and unsustainably sourced substances.

Some also grind up dinosaur fossils (mistakenly thought by some to be "dragon bones") to be used as medicines.[34][35][36][37] Given that dinosaur fossils have undergone complete mineralization, these "dragon bones" could not be any more effective than eating rocks.[citation NOT needed]

Bernard Read analyzed several dragon medicines used in TCM:[38]

Chinese name English translation Actual substance
龍骨 (long gu) Dragon bones Prehistoric animal bones, fossilized
龍齒 (long chi) Dragon teeth Prehistoric animal teeth, fossilized
龍腦 (long nao) Dragon brains Type of limestone
龍涎 (long yen) Dragon saliva AmbergrisWikipedia's W.svg

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Chinese Traditional Medicine: An Alternative and Complementary Medicine Resource Guide Alternative Medicine Foundation
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Chinese Materia Medica: Animal Drugs by Bernard E. Read (1931). Peking Natural History Bulletin. Based upon the "Pen Ts'ao Kang Mu" [Bencao Gangmu] by Li Shih-Chen [Li Shizhen].
  3. A U.S. Perspective on the Adverse Reactions from Traditional Chinese Medicines, J Chin Med Assoc2004;67:109-116
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 History of Chinese Medicine: Being a Chronicle of Medical Happenings in China from Ancient Times to the Present Period by K. Chimin Wong & Wu Lien-Teh (1936) National Quarantine Service.
  5. Yang, Lihui; Handbook of Chinese Mythology; New York: Oxford University Press; pages 190-199
  6. Spirituality in Traditional Chinese Medicine by Lin Shi & Chenguang Zhang (2012) Pastoral Psychology 61(5–6):959–974.
  7. Collection of the Essential Medical Herbs of Materia Medica
  8. A Brief History of Chinese Medicine and Its Influence by Peng Yoke Ho & F. P. Lisowski (1999). World Scientific, 2nd ed. ISBN 9810228031.
  9. Health Department and National Chinese Medicine Management Office (ed.). Zhong Hua Ben Cao, 3–460–509. Shanghai Science Technology Publication. 1999. ISBN 7532351068.
  10. Pharmacopoeia of the People's Republic of China (2005). Chemical Industry Press, 2 volumes: ISBN 7502520627 and ISBN 7502520635.
  11. Freeing China's caged bile bears / Animal activists aim to curtail trade in traditional remedy, SFgate.
  12. Media Releases for 2003, Medsafe.
  13. [1]
  14. "The Treatment of 75 Cases of Pediatric Oral Thrush with the Sweet, Cold, Protecting Yin Method" by Wang Le-ping, Shang Hai Zhong Yi Yao Za Zhi (The Shanghai Journal of Chinese Medicine & Medicinals), #5, 1994, p. 22
  15. Mi Tuo Seng — 密陀僧 — Lithargyrum
  16. Cinnabar, Acupuncture Today.
  17. Actinolite,
  18. Aconite.
  19. Realgar (xiong huang), Acupuncture Today.
  20. Yin Yang House: Guang Fang Zi (Aristolochia Root, Stephania) — Chinese Herbal Medicine
  21. Cinnabar (zhu sha),
  22. Qian Dan, TCMAssistant.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Galena, Acupuncture Today.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Mercury and Chinese herbal medicine,Issue: BCMJ, Vol. 46, No. 9, November 2004, page(s) 442 Letters H.C. George Wong, MD.
  25. 25.0 25.1 Mercury in Traditional Medicines: Is Cinnabar Toxicologically Similar to Common Mercurials?, doi: 10.3181/0712-MR-336 Exp Biol Med (Maywood) July 2008 vol. 233 no. 7 810-817.
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 26.3 Adulterants in Asian Patent Medicines by Richard J. Ko. N. Engl. J. Med. 1998; 339:847September 17, 1998DOI: 10.1056/NEJM199809173391214.
  27. Complexities of the herbal nomenclature system in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM): lessons learned from the misuse of Aristolochia-related species and the importance of the pharmaceutical name during botanical drug product development by K. M. Wu et al. Phytomedicine. 2007 Apr;14(4):273-9. Epub 2006 Jul 24.
  28. Aristolochic acid nephropathy: A worldwide problem by Debelle et al. Kidney International (2008) 74, 158–169; doi:10.1038/ki.2008.129.
  29. 29.0 29.1 World Rhino Day — 22nd September 2012, Michael Evans, The Earth Times.
  30. How a myth is killing the rhino, Atul Sethi, Times of India, Mar 4, 2013.
  31. Chinese Medicine Driving Rhinos to Extinction, Yahoo! News.
  32. Alternative Medicine Threatens Beasts with Extinction, LiveScience.
  33. Unproven Chinese Medicine Killing Manta Rays, Discovery News.
  34. Chinese Medicine: "Dragon Bones" SunStar Solutions
  35. Dinosaur Fossils Part of Longtime Chinese Tonic by Kevin Holden Platt National Geographic News July 13, 2007.
  36. Dragon's Bones and Teeth by Subhuti Dharmananda. Institute for Traditional Medicine.
  37. Chinese Dinosaur Bones used as Medicine July 8, 2007 Everything Dinosaur Blog.
  38. Chinese Materia Medica. VII. Dragons and Snakes by Bernard E. Read (1934) Peking Natural History Bulletin. pp. 8-9.