Traditional Chinese Medicine – Part One

This first part describes my first experience of the controversial subject of Chinese medical practices. Five Chinese “professors” explain and demonstrate their view of the benefits of Traditional Chinese Medicine. We conclude with a March 2023 report on a Chinese Medicine practice in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The second part will teach us more about Chinese Medicine from a less controversial perspective. We learn from the results of a scientific survey carried out in Hong Kong. Participants explain why they consult BOTH Western and Chinese practitioners. HongKongers, unlike their counterparts in mainland China, have always been exposed to the two types of medical care.

The third and final part looks at the background of the Wong family, whose son, Shuchang, was the guide when we visited the Chinese hospital.

Sun Simiao, who lived during the time of the Tang dynasty, was called the King of Medicine, for his significant contributions to Chinese medicine and the care he extended to his patients

Traditional Chinese Medicine

I received my first introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine, many years ago, during a trip to China.

As a tourist, you are not free to travel wherever you want to go in that country. We were on a strictly organised and supervised tour. Included was a visit to a Chinese hospital. It was interesting but very much part of the tour guides’ propaganda program.

We were “invited” to watch a short documentary on the benefits of traditional Chinese medicine.

There were about 80 of us, half American and half British. We arrived in two coaches. The tour guide in my coach was also a teacher, Wong supplemented his low income by working on the tourist coaches, and in selling works of calligraphy. His son, Shuchang, helped on the tour buses.

Wong’s Family

The writing of Chinese characters is an art form which Wong had become interested in as a hobby.

He soon became a master of the art.

Wong knew how to combine his visual art with his interpretation of the meaning.

We got to know Wong’s family quite well and visited their home several times during our holiday.

They were a lovely family.

I remember Shuchang referring to my son, who was of the same age but not on the tour, as “the friend I have not yet met”.

He spoke excellent English and his job was to ensure tourists did not wander off on their own.

Because Shuchang had to keep them “rounded up” like sheep, the tour operators gave him the nickname “Collie”.

The giving of nick names is common in both China and Thailand.

Later, during our vacation, we visited the Great Wall of China.

Shuchang was again instructed to keep the tourists under observation.

He was in his “collie” role again.

We got chatting and he told us that it was the first time he had been allowed out of the area in which he lived.

It’s almost unbelievable to think how the Chinese government control the lives of ordinary people.

Our tour of China certainly showed us how the cultures and lifestyles of other nationalities can influence how much control a country can have over its people.

Back at the Hospital

After watching the obligatory documentary, we were all told to stand to await the arrival of five professors, experts in the field of traditional Chinese medicine. They filed in, much like western university academics during degree ceremonies. But instead of colourful academic dress, they wore formal white clinical gowns. Nevertheless, it was very impressive. As, of course, they intended.

The professors said they would demonstrate the benefits of Chinese acupuncture, the “cupping” technique, Tui Na Massage, the Chinese herbs that they recommend, and analysis of a patient’s tongue. These experts asked for five volunteers from the audience to come up on stage to help them demonstrate the benefits of their science. There would be no charge. There was a rush from the assembled group. The first five were accepted and told to lay down on the beds positioned on stage. Everyone was watching eagerly and listening to the professors explaining their techniques.

They started with ACUPUNCTURE. Acupuncture involves inserting needles into the skin at particular points, depending on what part of the body the practitioners are dealing with. Although usually it is the chest, acupuncture can also be used on the scalp of one’s head, the feet, and the face. The professors emphasised the need for patients to have regular acupuncture sessions and suggested weekly visits to their local doctor. For this demonstration, they would spend just a few minutes.  

In Traditional Chinese Massage, there are as many as 2,000 acupuncture points on the body that are connected by 12 main meridians. These meridians, we were told, conduct energy, or “Qi,” from the surface of the skin to the body’s internal organs.

Acupuncture is believed to keep the balance between Yin and Yang in correct proportion. It enables the normal flow of “Qi” throughout the body, restoring health to both mind and body.

TUI NA MASSAGE (a combination of massage, and acupressure), has been used in China for centuries. The patient remains clothed and the doctor asks a series of questions and begins treatment. Though beneficial, the massage can be a little painful. Practitioners may use herbal compresses, ointments, and heat to enhance these techniques. Tui na is best suited for treating chronic pain and musculoskeletal conditions.

CUPPING consists of placing several glass “cups” on the body. T.C.M. practitioners warm the cups using a flame which is then placed inside each cup to remove the oxygen. The doctor then places the cup against the skin. The air in the cup cools, creates lower pressure inside the cup, allowing the cup to stick to the skin. Fleshy sites on the body, such as the back and stomach, are the preferred sites for treatment. Scraping, or “Gua Sha,” is a procedure that uses pieces of smooth jade, bone, animal tusks, horns, or smooth stones to scrape along the skin to release obstruction and toxins that are trapped at the surface of the skin. The scraping is done until red spots, then bruising, cover the treatment area.

The materials commonly used in HERBOLOGY are leaves, roots, stems, flowers, and seeds of plants such as cinnamon bark, ginger, ginseng, licorice, and rhubarb. Ginseng is the most common substance used. The herbs are mixed and given to the patient in tea, other liquid, tablet, or powder. Despite there being no scientific proof that Herbology works, many patients believe in its effectiveness.

photo credit. Virginia University

Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners use 5 basic methods of diagnosis in their assessments: looking, asking, listening, smelling, and touching. While the diagnosis focuses on the patient’s physical appearance and behavior, the TONGUE is also examined.

The analysis of the tongue includes its size, shape, tension, colour, and coating.

This diagram shows the parts of the tongue which correspond to our internal organs.

The tongue has various features that indicate various bodily functions.

Tongue body color: indicates the state of blood, organs, and Qi.

Tongue body shape: reflects the state of blood and Qi, and indicates excess or deficiency.

Tongue body features: teeth marks may indicate that the tongue rests against the teeth. This is often a sign of a digestive disorder or may indicate heat or inflammation in the blood.

Tongue body moisture: reveals the state of fluids in the body.

Tongue coating: indicates the state of organs, especially the stomach.

Tongue coat thickness may indicate an imbalance in digestion, or may be associated with allergic disorders and autoimmune diseases. Cracks in the tongue could be a sign of a yeast infection or a biotin deficiency. The tongue coat root may indicate impairment of organs if it is not attached to the tongue’s surface.

Patients are instructed not to brush their tongue prior to an appointment. To do so would make the findings irrelevant.

The End of the Demonstration by the 5 Professors

The demonstration had lasted about 20 minutes. When the volunteers started to go back to their seats, the organisers, sitting in the front row, started clapping. They stood up and motioned to the audience to clap and to stand as the professors left the hall.

As we walked back to the buses, I looked down a soi and saw those same 5 professors, now in shirtsleeves and ordinary garb, puffing away at cigarettes and imbibing the local brew. Whether they really were qualified in Traditional Chinese Medicine, we will never know. But the theatre to which everyone had been exposed was now seen for what it actually was!

A Chinese Medical Clinic in Chiangmai, Thailand.

The above photo is of Pumrapee, taken in March 2023. She qualified as a practitioner in traditional Chinese medicine in a prestigious Bangkok university and then spent some 6 years in China, improving her knowledge and developing her expertise further.

Although a Thai citizen, her features suggest her family originated from China. She speaks two Chinese dialects and is fluent in English. The photo below appears to be Pumrapee while she was in China.

Some thoughts on whether Chinese Medicine is fake.

Some European doctors think Chinese medicine should come with a health warning

Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (T.C.M.) have a reputation for making exaggerated claims that they can improve a person’s fertility and virility. Demand for tiger penis and rhino horn has devastated wild populations. Some of these practitioners insist that herbs can increase a woman’s supply of breast milk. They convince patients that secret treatments to fight cancer, which they have developed, are better than Western methods. And that herbs can cure insomnia and acne.   

Doctors in Europe are concerned that unverified claims made in the name of traditional Chinese medicine have gone viral on social media. For example, black salve, which Chinese practitioners claim can treat tumors, actually burns the flesh and causes body disfigurement.  

Two leading European scientific and medical bodies say that the W.H.O., the World Health Organisation, has ignored the findings of peer-reviewed factual research. And that they have, by supporting the concept, added to the misinformation about Chinese medicine.

The European findings have, because of the sparsity of evidence and poor research methodology, been confirmed by the University of Maryland.

George Griffin, a professor of Infectious Diseases and Medicine at St. George’s, University of London, wrote that “unscrupulous people, who wish to sell these products, can post on social media without any formal verification”.

Unscientific medicine

The basic principle of Traditional Chinese Medicine is that vital energy, or QI, circulates through channels in the body which connect to various organs and functions. Therapies, such as cupping, acupuncture, or herbal treatments, seek to activate these channels, or balance someone’s QI.

Qi, sometimes spelt and pronounced Chi, is the body’s vital energy. Links to both Yin and Yang, and Taoism

Despite the methods having been in use for thousands of years, critics argue that there is no verifiable scientific evidence that QI actually exists.

The Chinese medicine industry is globally worth an estimated $202 billion and forecast to reach $311 billion by 2027.

For balanced perspective, it is fair to say that not all Chinese medicine techniques are fake. In 2015, Chinese scientist, Tu Youyou won the Nobel Prize in medicine for her work on malaria. She successfully drew on traditional practices and folklore. Some herbs used in Chinese medicine have, in scientifically controlled experiments, shown benefits. More research is needed.

China does not support the need for more research, maintaining that there is no evidence suggesting that the effectiveness of Chinese medicine should ever be called into question.

Dubious claims

A page on Facebook, The Truth about Cancer, has more than 3 million likes, and encourages users to join tours in the Far East to discover the benefits of Chinese medicine. The page alleges that the multinational pharmaceutical companies have vested interests in promoting Western medicine over Chinese traditional methods.   

Apple founder, Steve Jobs, was one of many who ignored doctors’ warnings about Chinese medicine. He choose to treat the cancer, which eventually killed him, by using acupuncture and herbal remedies instead of Western treatments.

The Jury is still out on Traditional Chinese Medicine

Although scientists, particularly in the West, believe that there is strong evidence that Traditional Chinese Medicine is fake and dangerous, there ARE some empirical examples, as we have seen, that prove there are at least some benefits in some circumstances. Although many medicines are indeed placebos, that doesn’t mean they are of no benefit. The brain can often convince the body that the medicine will work. Western doctors in the 1960s regularly prescribed coloured water to patients. If it made patients FEEL better, then it was a correct solution to the person’s perceived illness.

I will pay a visit to the Pumrapee Chinese Medicine Clinic in the next few days and test the theories and comments for myself. I have an open mind. Their marketing, however, does not appear ethical.

Can you spot something odd in their price list? (prices are in Thai Baht)

Cost of 1 consultation 3 consultations 5 consultations 10 consultations

750 2250 3500 7000

The cost of a SINGLE consultation includes acupuncture at 300 baht, infrared therapy at 100 baht, electric stimulation at 100 baht, and cupping therapy at 250 baht. That totals 750 baht.

But the 2250 baht fee includes ONLY 1 cupping therapy not 3. The 3500 fee includes 2 not 5 cupping therapies. The fee for 10 consultations provides only 4 cupping treatments and not 10.

If we add back the cost of the missing treatments, we see that it is cheaper to pay as you go with single appointments.

The first line shows what they actually get you to pay.

The second line adds back the cost of the missing treatments.

The third line shows the adjusted figures.

The final line shows what you’re REALLY paying for each consultation.

750                    2250            3500             7000 cost 
                        500             750             1500 add back
                       ----            ----             ---- 
                       2750            4250             8500 adjusted  

750                     917             850              850 real cost                                                 

So, you lose out by availing yourself of the “special” offer of a “discounted” price if you opt for a COURSE of treatments instead of paying 750 baht at the end of each consultation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *