Can Traditional Chinese Medicine Survive?

At Aeon Magazine, James Palmer describes the political, economic and cultural drives behind the $60 billion Traditional Chinese Medicine industry in China and Hong Kong, and its uneasy relationship with science and modern medicine.

The institutionalisation of TCM was not inevitable. It arose out of China’s damaged encounters with the West, out of the ideological struggles of the 1930s, and the political needs of the early People’s Republic. And like most traditions, from kilts to Christmas trees, it’s a lot younger than people think.

[…] It was the Communist government that coined the term TCM, formally founding the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine in 1954, and establishing many new TCM universities and institutions in the next few years, where TCM was formally stripped of its most obvious ‘superstitious’ elements, such as astrology and phrenology. The relentless drumbeat was on ‘scientification’ — the belief that the huge range of traditional practices could be systematised into an alternative national theory to ‘Western medicine’, or even integrated into broader medical theory.

[…] Despite its massive economic growth, China is still a deeply uncertain country, especially when it comes to its place in the world. Belief in TCM is a comforting national myth. The West might have invented modern medicine, but China has something just as good! Such pride can blend into pure ethno-nationalism: I have twice been told that ‘The reason Westerners don’t believe in TCM is that it only works on Chinese bodies.’

TCM’s claims of being ‘natural’ are also highly appealing in country where everything from dumplings to baby milk to river water can be toxic. Talking to an acupuncture student, I suggested that science could identify the chemicals in herbal medicines. ‘Herbs don’t have chemicals!’ she protested sharply. ‘Chemicals are from factories!’ [Source]

See also Palmer’s previous Aeon piece on China’s generation gaps, and subsequent discussion at ChinaFile, via CDT.


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