Excerpt from a Chinese herbal medicine guide.

A Brief Introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine and Philosophies

In Western culture, traditional Chinese medicine has been gaining popularity (Market Research, 2020). In developed and developing countries, acupuncture, fire cupping, herbalism, or Chinese massage (tuina) are expanding. It is highly marketable and often highly commercialized, but this sector remains fundamentally health-related. It comes from a desire shared by all cultures: treating the sick and assisting the injured in recovering as fast as possible. A key idea of traditional Chinese medicine is the notion of restoring balance to the inner energy of qi (氣, qì, pronounced “chee,” air or vapor) and xuè (血, “shui,” blood). As a holistic and somewhat spiritual healing system, Chinese medicine considers health as the result of inner and outer balance. An imbalance in the yīn(陰)and yáng (陽) is the cause of disease, therefore, restoring health is more than simply eliminating diseases. There are times when someone can display no symptoms and still have health problems or an energetic imbalance. As opposed to Western medicine, which uses science and biology to develop chemical cures to treat the human body, traditional Chinese medicine approaches healing from a different perspective. This article will explore and introduce Traditional Chinese Medicine and its varied philosophies.

The origins and philosophies of traditional Chinese medicine

In China, the first writings about the disease date from the Shang Dynasty, an era between the 15th and 11th centuries BCE. Foundational medical records came around the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE). The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon, the first text to develop these ideologies with more depth, showcases the traditional Chinese philosophy on which medical practices have since been built upon. This multi-volume treatise approached the function of the human body and its relationship with the world with views that introduce topics like the Five Phases, the Ying and Yang, the energy of qi.

The cycle of the Five Phases

In parallel with the European concept of the Five Elements by Socrates and the Buddhist concept of the Four Elements, the Five Phases (五行 Wǔ Xing /woo sshing/’Five Actions’) underwent an intense period of interest and focused on Chinese philosophy during the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BC). It explains the relationships that we can see in Nature, as well as in our inner bodies. These Five Phases (fire, metal, earth, water, and wood) are the source of all existence, the elements that made the Universe and our world what it is today (Jiang, 2021). It is a metaphysical philosophy that stresses the holistic interconnectedness between Man and Nature. “In Chinese cosmology, all phenomena in the Universe…as expressing one of the five cyclic phases symbolized as wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. The human body is conceived as a microcosm of the whole Universe.” –David. A. Palme

Illustrating the interaction between the Five Phases
Illustrating the interaction between the Five Phases Credits https://www.heathercarey.com/news/the-five-phases-fire/

 The interaction of these phases is what drives changes in the natural world. Seasonal changes, changing landscapes, and even natural disasters prove the validity of the Five Phases. These elements constantly fuel, consume, contain, and support each other. Forest fires happen because wood fuels fire, the appearance of volcanoes can be explained by the fact that fire supports the earth, minerals, and precious gems are born out of the relationship between earth and metal, and so on. The interactions that create life are known as generating interactions and are associated with the yàng.Opposing this view are the overcoming interactions, including all relationships between elements that either limit, separate, absorb or destroy. For instance, the melting of metal through the fire, the destruction of wood with metal when chopping or drilling. The fact that tree roots separate the earth illustrates how wood does the same to its counterpart. Or how the earth absorbs rainwater and water extinguishes fires. The yin represents this ever-flowing relationship of destruction.

The duality of Yin-Yang

In traditional Chinese medicine, the notion of restoring balance to the body is the cure for most, if not all, of the diseases and injuries a person can have. Anything taken to an extreme is just as harmful as the scarcity of an element. Physical behaviors that influence health, such as overeating or barely eating, can also apply to too much or too little concentration of qì the previously mentioned elements. The yin-yang represents the idea that when all the complementary forces of Life and Nature work in harmony, the best results are guaranteed. The idea that opposing forces (like the female energy and the male energy, or passivity and activity; earth and heaven, or darkness and light) cannot exist without the other is the foundation of the yin-yang. There are, after all, no shadows without a light source.Yin: is the symbol of the earth, embodies femaleness, darkness, passivity, and absorption (Britannica, 2021). In the yin-yang symbol, the yin is colored black and represents the moon.Yang: is the conception of heaven, maleness, light, activity, and penetration. In the yin-yang symbol, the Yang is colored white and represents the sun.”Yin and Yang were seen to be in a dynamic, complementary, copulative and generative relationship: the alternation and the union of yin and yang gives birth to all beings.” -David. A. Palmer.

The properties of the Ying and Yang.

In the human body, the Yin and Yang balance (Ying Yang Ping Heng) allows the qì to flow smoothly, and people can then call upon and absorb the life-energy of their surroundings. Yin and Yang imbalance (Yin Yang Shi Heng) causes disease, in which the flow of qì is disrupted by possible blockages of energy in the body.Chinese medicine relies on the Yin-Yang theory most when identifying the body parts affected by the energy imbalance that caused the disease or the symptoms. With the knowledge of the following image, traditional Chinese medical practitioners can restore the harmony of the yin-yang by correcting the qì and xuè of specific areas of the body with techniques like acupuncture, fire cupping, the use of herbs, and more. 

Areas influenced by the Yin and Yang
Credit:  https://chinesereligiouslife.wordpress.com/cosmology/

Three Techniques in Traditional Chinese Medicine

China does not present a single disease-curing formula like Western medicine. Traditional Chinese medicine demonstrates their holistic view on health care by following the “treatment principle of “differentiating” syndromes to cure the underlying cause” ( Sun. D, Li. S, Zhang. Y et al. 2013). With this in mind, practitioners can cure the same disease with different herbs, plants, or even different methods. 

Herbs and Diet

 Herbal medicine, also referred to as  herbalism medicine uses plants to treat illnesses and diseases by the application to the skin or  by ingestion. The botanical variety in Chinese landscapes has played an essential role in expanding the use of herbs for healing. Considering that China has such lush vegetation, it has been possible to test out the effects many plants have on both the body and qì. The Man’s consumption of Nature is one of the most natural ways for the qì to find harmony. It encourages the production of life energy depending on the plant’s property. “There are core traditional ideas that traditional practitioners hold about the need to harmonize Yin and Yang and the various qi in human bodies.’- Gavin, 2021 Herbalism and natural medicine have received more exposure in Western culture in the more recent years. According to the study conducted by Orbis Research in 2020, the increasing popularity of herbal therapeutics has majorly driven this increased popularity of the global organic herbal medicine market. Some examples of the everyday use of herbalism: 

  • Detoxifying teas or slimming teas
    Tea popular for its slimming properties.
    Credits : https://www.vitaminshoppe.com/p/triple-leaf-teas-super-slimming-herbal-tea-20-bag/tf-1007
  • Superfoods like goji berries or wolfberries, known in the West as an antioxidant.
  • Highly demanded supplements like Saffron ( fang hong hua) are associated with the Heart and Liver meridians. Encourages blood flow and helps break up blood clots.                        

It is easy to understand why herbal medicine is such an attractive alternative or traditional Western medicine. Not only is it relatively inexpensive compared to going to a regular hospital, it promotes a consistently healthy lifestyle. While a regular antibiotic combats the already existing disease, the traditional Chinese use of herbs allows the plants to be added to the diet, promoting the overall health that helps prevent diseases. 


While the insertion of very fine needles is not something one would consider doing as a method of relaxation and grounding, traditional Chinese medicine has successfully made acupuncture one of the best understood medical therapy methods in the West.James Reston encouraged this interest in the practice in his article, widely regarded as the first introduction of Chinese medicine to the American public. Reston writes about his experience receiving acupuncture treatments after an emergency surgery while in China. Amazed by the positive changes he observed in his body after each session, he wrote “Now, About My Operation in Peking” and published it in the New York Times in 1971.

Credits :https://novaphysiotherapy.ca/physiotherapy-treatments/acupuncture/

Since then, acupuncture has been welcomed into various societies and recognized as an effective health treatment. Chinese medical literature supports the claim that inserting these needles into the body at specific superficial locations harmonizes the yìn-yang, qì, and xuè. In China, acupuncture is practiced on the same level that Western medicine is in hospitals and clinics. Patients with chronic diseases, or who struggle with chronic pain, instantly feel the benefits of the practice. Patients may feel hesitant to submit themselves to a treatment involving countless needles. Still, they often experience a wave of relief and peace afterward, leaving room for more harmony inside their soothed body.

Fire Cupping

A surprising aspect of fire cupping is that it’s been practiced for centuries in China and that the Western world and Egypt used this therapy thousands of years before Christ. China’s intent to manipulate the qì was different from theirs, but their practice still had similar uses. Cupping has been popular in Egyptian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern cultures for thousands of years, but a rising number of societies worldwide have been adopting this practice.

Glass being heated before use

 As described in Harvard Health, fire cupping is an ancient therapy with no clear origin that leaves temporary circular discoloration on the skin. The heat in the glass, suctions the blood from the area, and discoloration happens due to broken vessels beneath the skin, similar to a bruise. Fire cupping is usually combined with Chinese therapeutic massage, acupuncture, or other therapies. The practice of fire cupping is interesting since, biologically speaking, it is unclear how to draw blood to a particular area. But, indeed, cupping has effectively countered back and neck pain, skin diseases such as acne and hives, high cholesterol, migraines, knee arthritis, and improving immune function. Chinese philosophies review and explain the benefits of fire cupping by citing “cupping as a treatment that can strengthen the body’s resistance, restore the balance between positive and negative forces, remove disease-causing factors, and promote blood circulation” (Shmerling, 2016). The exact biological explanation is still unclear.

Significance in Anthropology

Traditional Chinese medicine is the embodiment of the culture’s beliefs and evolving philosophies applied to promote health and longevity.This medical ideology is a multi-layered, complex topic that is as unique as its home country. The medical practices and therapies included in this subject and traditional Chinese philosophies, such as the Five Phases, the yin-yang, and the qì, and xuè, are intertwined. The interconnectedness of human health and beliefs echoes the holistic approach in their faith. Traditional medical practitioners believe that the human body is an organic unity that reflects the interactions of the natural world. Chinese medicine strives to achieve the balance of life for the individual as well as their environment. One’s health is simply the result of restoring balance within one’s body. Traditional Chinese medicine applies techniques like herbalism, acupuncture, fire cupping, and many others. People worldwide aren’t hesitating to try these treatments, even though the biological explanations are still being studied.


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