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A brief introduction to Chinese medicine


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Chinese Culture > Chinese Health > Chinese Medicine

Visiting a Chinese pharmacy to get Chinese medicine in Taiwan is much like being inside a miniature museum of natural science. Tucked away in row after row of tidy drawers are animal, plant, and mineral products, each with a particular purpose of making Chinese medicine. Among the assortment of curiosities is amber, to relax the nerves; peach pits and safflower, to improve blood circulation; Chinese ephedra (mahuang) to induce perspiration; and ginseng to strengthen cardiac function.

The filling of a prescription ordered by a Chinese doctor is a fascinating process to watch. The pharmacist selects a few particular ingredients from the hundreds on his shelf. Chinese medicine are taken home by the patient, boiled into a "soup", and drunk. Confronted with such a steaming brew, you might ask yourself just what the basis of this ancient medical art is.

The theoretical framework of Chinese medicine was established more than two millennia ago. A great deal of ancient medical knowledge is preserved in the pre-Chin (221-207 B.C.) Inner Cannon (Nei Ching), a comprehensive record of Chinese medicine and medical theories up to that time. The Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) produced an authoritative and valuable practical guide--even to the present day--to the treatment of illness, the Treatise on Diseases Caused by Cold Factors (Shang Han Lun) by Chang Chung-ching.

One of the best-known Chinese medical works is the Materia Medica(Pen Ts'ao Kang Mu), compiled in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) by Li Shih-chen. This encyclopedic workChinese herbs heralded a new era in the world history of pharmacology; it includes descriptions of 1,892 different kinds of Chinese medicines. These works have all been translated into several foreign languages, and have exercised a profound influence on East Asian and European countries.

The Chinese have a unique system of categorizing illnesses that is widely divergent from its Western counterpart. The philosophy behind Chinese medicine is that man lives between heaven and earth, and comprises a miniature universe in himself. The material of which living things are made is considered to belong to the "yin", or female, passive, receding aspect of nature. The life functions of living things, on the other hand, are considered to belong to the "yang", or masculine, active, advancing aspect. The functions of living beings are described in terms of the following five centers of the body: 1."heart" or "mind" (hsin); this refers to the "command center" of the body, which manifests itself as consciousness and intelligence; 2."lungs" or "respiratory system" (fei); this system regulates various intrinsic functions of the body, and maintains cybernetic balance; 3."liver" (kan); this term includes the limbs and trunk, the mechanism for emotional response to the external environment, and the action of organs; 4."spleen" (p'i); this organ system regulates the distribution of nutrition throughout the body, and the metabolism, bringing strength and vigor to the physical body; and 5."kidneys" (shen); this refers to the system for regulating the storage of nutrition and the use of energy; the human life force depends on this system. This theory is used to describe the system of body functions, and as a whole is referred to as the "latent phenomena" ( ts'ang hsiang).

The passage of the seasons and changes in the weather can have an influence on the human body. Those having the most pronounced effect are wind (feng), cold (han), heat (shu), moisture (shih), dryness (tsao), and internal heat (huo "fire"). Excessive or extraordinary changes in the weather harm the body, and are referred to as the "six external disease-causing factors" (liu yin). On the other hand, if mood changes within the individual, such as happiness(hsi), anger(nu), worry(yu), pensiveness(szu), grief(pei), fear(k'ung), and surprise(ching) are too extreme, they will also harm the health. These emotions are called the "seven emotions"(ch'i ch'ing). In Chinese medicine, the six external disease-causing factors, interacting with the seven emotions, form the theoretical foundation of disease pathology. These theoretical models, coupled with the "theory of latent phenomena," are used to analyze the patient's constitution and his illness, and diagnose the exact nature of his overall physical and psychological loss of balance. Based on this analysis, the doctor can prescribe a method to correct the imbalance. The object of Chinese medicine is the person, not just the illness. In Chinese medical thinking, illness is only one manifestation of an imbalance that exists in the entire person.

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