TCM in mainland China and Taiwan: Initial Impressions

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Volunteering at a rural clinic in Nanjing

I am still new to the whole world of Traditional Chinese Medicine in mainland China and Taiwan, but am sharing here my brief impressions. One reason is that acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine are so marginal in Turtle Island (North America), so many people (myself included) have grown up with no idea how long-standing (oh just 5000 years or so), dynamic and rich this medical tradition continues to be.

The extent to which TCM is applied, researched, and integrated into biomedicine in China is mind-blowing. From home-based village clinics to urban TCM hospital emergency rooms, wild-picked mountain herbs to huge herbal factories, family lineages and heritage sites to world-class universities… China probably has more people involved in traditional Chinese medicine practice and research, than the territories known as ‘Canada’ have in total population!

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Chinese medicine department of Tzu Chi Hospital in Hualien City, providing acupuncture, moxibustion and herbal medicine

In both Taiwan (where I was last year) and now mainland China, any random person you ask is more likely than not to be at least slightly familiar with some of the common herbs, acupuncture points or basic concepts of yin-yang balance; traditional medicine is in some ways simply part of the everyday culture. It doesn’t hurt that national health insurance coverage includes TCM alongside ‘Western’ biomedicine, and that many hospitals and clinics offer both. As such, acupuncture and moxibustion, tuina massage and herbal medicine is not only much more affordable and accessible to the population. (Not to say there aren’t surely challenges, contradictions, and areas for improvement – I’m just giving a general impression here!)

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Professor Ling Xu, head of Shanghai University of TCM’s affiliated Long Hua Hospital Oncology Department, at an academic conference. Her lecture about cancer and nutrition begins, as many do, with references to ancient works, such as the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine.

In Taiwan, magazines you can buy at the convenience store include seasonal tips or recipes from Chinese medicine. A small but growing number of people are developing organic herb farms, seeking to provide plant medicine that best respects our bodies and our earth, and a number of medicinal herb gardens are promoted as tourist destinations. Certain restaurants specialize in herbal soups, and others often add common herbs (such as Dang Gui, Chinese angelica) to hot pot broth, lamb soup, or other delicious recipes.

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Local traditional herbs at a small shop in Taiwan

Taiwan’s indigenous groups also have their own traditional uses for local plants that are completely distinct from the system of herbal use in TCM (though indications for herbal use often overlap). Even local cafes and university clubs sometimes hold acupuncture classes for the general public to learn about commonly-used energy channels and points.

In mainland China, the Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine, where I am now based, is one of the oldest, most well-known institutions of Chinese medicine in the country, with 2 campuses, 15,000 students, 1200 faculty, 16 affiliated and 20 teaching hospitals. Dozens of academic departments and specializations include TCM classical medical literature, nursing, gynecology, orthopedics, internal medicine, external medicine, pharmacology, acupuncture, tuina massage, basic research, laboratory medicine, etc. Classes include anything from ‘Recent Developments in Pathology’ to ‘Applications of the Treatise on Cold Damage‘ to ‘Learning from the Clinical Experience and Case Histories of Famous Doctors.’ Medical conferences, panels, and workshops on various topics are constantly convened.

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Herbs growing in a medicinal herb garden. This is in the ‘toxic’ herbs section (yes some herbs are toxic, and must be specially prepared or combined for safety).

I was able to visit a number of medicinal herbal farms and gardens in Taiwan, including some that were attempting to use organic cultivation methods. Through continued sharing of experience by practitioners and researchers, knowledge continues to grow about the massive range of medicinal herbs used traditionally in this part of the world. Many practitioners still refer to classical ‘materia medica’ (herb dictionaries and references guides) that, over the past 2000 years, have been continually re-compiled, expanded and updated with information about effective combinations, toxicity, and more recent pharmacological research.

On the whole, the diverse traditional medical approaches throughout mainland China and Taiwan range from very classical to very modern. Many practice traditions still analyze and apply timeless classics such as the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, or Essential Prescriptions from the Golden Cabinet. Meanwhile other researchers, such as in this Nature article, are exploring how systems biology, or a computational ‘omics’ approach that is suited to analyzing complex biological systems, can link TCM (which is a complex,whole ‘systems’ based medical approach) to a biomedical framework. In sum, the richness of this medical tradition continues to overwhelm and inspire me, and I hope to continue sharing its insights with you over the coming years.

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