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As an agricultural society, the Chinese have long been aware of the importance of the proper balance of natural, elemental forces too much heat causes drought; too much rain, floods; while the correct measure of both encourages farmers’ crops to grow. The ancient Chinese saw heaven, earth and humankind existing as an integral whole, such that if people lived in harmony with heaven and earth, then their collective health would be good. The medical treatise Huang Di Neijing, attributed to the semi-mythical Yellow Emperor (2500 BC), mentions the importance of spiri­tual balance, acupuncture and herbal medicine in treating illnesses, and attests to the venerable age of China’s medical beliefs – it may well be a compilation of even earlier texts. Acupuncture was certainly in use by the Hall period, as tombs in Hebei dated to 113 BC have yielded acupuncture needles made of gold and silver.

The belief in universal balance is known as Dao (or Tao) – literally “the Way”, but implying “the Way of Nature”. As an extension of Daoist principles, life is seen as consisting of opposites – man and woman, sun and moon, right and left, giving and receiving – whereby all things exist as a result of their inter­action with their opposites. This is expressed in the black-and-white Daoist diagram which shows two interacting opposites, the yin (“female”, passive energy) and the yang (“male”, active energy). At the core of traditional Chinese medicine is the belief that in order for a body to be healthy, its oppo­sites must also be in a state of dynamic balance; there is a constant fluctuation, for example, between the body’s heat, depending on its level of activity and the weather, and the amount of water needed to keep the body at the correct temperature. An excess of water in the system creates edema, too little creates dehydration; too much heat will cause a temperature, and too little cause chills. Chinese medicine therefore views the body as an integrated whole, so that in sickness, the whole body – rather than just the “ill” part of it – requires treat­ment.

Qi and acupuncture

An underlying feature of Chinese medical philosophy, qi (or chi) is the energy of life: in the same way that electricity powers a lightbulb, qi enables us to move, see and speak. Qi flows along the body’s network of meridians, or energy pathways, linking the surface tissues to specific internal organs which act as qi reservoirs: the twelve major meridians are named after the organ to which they are connected. The meridians are further classed as yin or yang depending on whether they are exposed or protected. In the limbs, for instance, the outer sides’ channels are yang, and important for resisting disease, while the tuner sides’ channels are yin, and more involved with nourishing the body.

Mental and physical tensions, poor diet, anger or depression, even adverse weather, however, inhibit qi flow, causing illness. Needles inserted (and then rotated as necessary) in the body’s acupuncture points, most of which lie on meridians and so are connected to internal organs, reinforce or reduce the qi flow along a meridian, in turn influencing the organs’ activates. When the qi is balanced and flowing smoothly once more, good health is regained; acupunc­ture is specifically used to combat inflammation regenerate damaged tissue, and to improve the functional power of internal organs.

Herbal medicine

In the 2200 years since the semi-mythical Xia king Shennong compiled his classic work on medicinal herbs, a vast amount of experience has been gained to help perfect their clinical use. Approximately seven thousand herbs, derived from roots, leaves, twigs and fruit, are today commonly used in Chi­nese medicine, with another thousand of animal or mineral origin (though also classified as “herbs”). Each is first processed by – cleaning, soaking, slicing, drying or roasting, or even stir-frying with wine, ginger or vinegar, to influence their effects, the brew is then boiled down and drunk as a tea (typically very bitter and earthy tasting).

Herbs are effective in preventing or combating a w ide variety of diseases. Sonic are used to treat the underlying cause of the complaint, others to treat symptoms and help strengthen the body’s own immune system, in turn help­ing it to combat the problem. An everyday example is in the treatment of flu: the herbal formula would include a “cold action” herb to reduce the fever. a herb to induce sweating and so clear the body-ache, a purgative to clear the virus from the system and a tonic herb to replenish the immune system . In all, treatments, the patient is re-examined each week, and as the condition improves the herbal formula is changed accordingly.

In the same way that Western aspirin is derived from willow bark, many Chinese drugs have been developed from herbs. One example is the anti­ malarial herb 1inYhaosii, or artemisinin. which has proved effective in treating chloroquine-resistant strains of malaria with minimal side-effects.

Chinese versus Western medicine

It’s difficult to compare Chinese and Western medicine directly, is their approaches are so different. Very broadly, Western medical techniques are superior for treating major physical trauma with surgery: the Chinese approach seems more effective on chronic illness or in maintaining long­- term health. In 1974 the World Health Organization recognized the bene­fits of acupuncture, while in 1979 the United Nations accepted that Tradi­tional Chinese Medicine (TCM) worked in the treatment of infections, res­piratory, circulatory and neurological conditions, and musculoskeletal trau­matic injuries as well as arthritic and inflammatory problems. In addition, the fact that traditional medical schools can he found today in Western cities worldwide, as well as every province of China, indicates a growing global acceptance.