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Christians and TCM

( [email protected] ) May 24, 2011 12:15 PM EDT
Many Christians have asked if it is alright to seek TCM treatment. Is it alright to practice TCM? To begin, it is most helpful for us to understand the meaning of the term Traditional Chinese Medicine and trace its roots. I do not profess to be an expert in this field. The history of Chinese Medicine dates back to as early as Qin Dynasty 221 – 207 BC. Round about 145 – 85 BC philosophy, societal values and religion played key roles in shaping the practice of Chinese medicine.
Tan Cheng Huat

Many Christians have asked if it is alright to seek TCM treatment. Is it alright to practice TCM? To begin, it is most helpful for us to understand the meaning of the term Traditional Chinese Medicine and trace its roots. I do not profess to be an expert in this field. The history of Chinese Medicine dates back to as early as Qin Dynasty 221 – 207 BC. Round about 145 – 85 BC philosophy, societal values and religion played key roles in shaping the practice of Chinese medicine.

I watched a TV series entitled Hua Tuo - the divine physician (shenyi). Hua Tuo was born during the Han Dynasty around 110 A.D., in Qiao of Peiguo County, in what is now Anhui Province, one of the four major herb distribution centres of modern China. He lived for about 100 years and died around 207 A.D. Hua Tuo was the first famous Chinese surgeon. He was the first in the world to develop the use of anesthesia, and furthered the limited Chinese knowledge of anatomy. When using acupuncture and herbs, he preferred simple methods, using a small number of acupuncture points and formulas comprised of only a few herbs. He practiced Qi Gong and taught the "frolics of the five animals," a practice still used today. The five animals are Tiger, Deer, Bear, Ape and Crane. These practices were later incorporated into various health promoting martial arts practices, such as taijiquan.

Cai Jingfeng in “The China Institute for History of Medicine and Medical Literature”, China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine recorded that Confucianism influenced the guiding principle of medical ethics and about half a century after the advent of the Christian era, Buddhism exerted certain influences on medical morality in ancient China. The seventh century saw the maturity of medical ethics in ancient China, embodied in two special chapters regarding the requirements for a doctor in the book Qianjinfang (Prescriptions worth a Thousand Gold) written by the famous physician Sun Simiao (581-682).

Sun was a devotee of Buddhism, so much so that he advised a "standard" or model doctor not to apply drugs of animal origin in order to observe the Buddhist taboo regarding the taking of life, by saying that "it is far from saving (patients') life by killing (animals') lives, because all animals, man and domestic animals, have pity on their own lives". He even emphasised that, when using snake drugs, one must purchase those dead ones sold in the market, and he was even very reluctant to use hens' eggs for medicinal purposes, because the egg, in his opinion, was already a potent life. Ironically enough, in Sun's text mentioned above, he applied a lot of animal drugs in his thousands of recipes, indicating that the Confucian idea of whole-heartedness is far more important than and superior to Buddhist taboos, and a pragmatic concept to meet the demands of patients' practical needs.”

Western medicine tends to ignore the role of the spirit in health and illness. It has lost sight of what is common knowledge in most other cultures that the state of the spirit is of fundamental importance in state of health. Problems in the spirit may become problems in the body, and vice versa. Illness may arise at the level of the spirit, and become physical. Or illness may arise at the physical level, and become illness of the spirit. In Chinese medicine, sickness is manifested in the elements being out of balance. These elements are water, wood, fire, earth and metal. Each element governs particular physical organs, as well as emotions and parts of the spirit. For example, water governs the kidneys, the emotion of fear, and that part of the spirit which is willpower (the “qi” in Chinese). Wood governs the liver, the emotion of anger, and that part of the spirit which pertains to the “heavenly” or “ethereal” realm (the “Hun” in Chinese). Until around the time of the Renaissance, western medicine held a similar medical paradigm based on the elements, although the elements themselves were different (water, earth, fire and air).

Today some Christians are nervous of Chinese medicine because its system of elements seems 'pagan'. The concept of qi seems to have a spiritual reference but since the 1950s the Chinese have moved and anchored qi without spiritual overtones and the Chinese medicine still works, so spirituality is not essential to Chinese medicine. It's therefore a medical term, useful for diagnosis and treatment. The term Chinese Medicine (Zhong yi ) was adapted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the 1950s where medical schools established standardised curricula to teach basic medical sciences, traditional pharmacotherapy, acupuncture and Chinese remedial massage. To accomplish this, the theoretical basis of Chinese medicine had to be standardised and adapted to classroom teaching. The Chinese government institutionalized Chinese Medicine in developing the curricula into a purely somatic realm, and created a more holistic educational framework. If you talked to most Chinese Medicine practitioners in China and ask if TCM is linked to Taoism or Buddhism, they will laugh, or just look at you blankly because what they practice is Chinese medicine, not religion.

Christians have been misinformed about Chinese Medicine because of the influence of those of other faith. The true conflict to which we allude is not between our Christianity and Chinese Medicine. It's between you and the choice of which type of medicine you want to seek or practice... not about what you believe. The dilemma is how not to be overly defensive, but to be rooted in your understanding of TCM. If you haven't noticed, not all of the Western medical doctors are Christians. Some of them are of other faith. Does that affect their practice of the medicine? Generally, NO. It may only influence their personal style or conversation with the patient.

Tan Cheng Huat is the Moderator of the English Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in Singapore and the Senior Pastor of True Way Presbyterian Church.