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Traditional Chinese Medicine today: Still evolving after 5,000 years

By Wu Chengliang, Morag Hobbs, Liu Ning, Liang Jun (People's Daily Online)    11:09, November 26, 2018

The dawn of traditional Chinese medicine is still somewhat shrouded in mystery, with many people claiming it began anywhere from 3,000 to over 5,000 years ago. What is certain, however, is that traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM, was being tried and tested long before the inception of western medicine, and is still evolving today.

Practitioners of TCM train for years, learning the intricacies of herbal medicines and physical practices, such as acupuncture, to treat and prevent health problems. Huang Shu, Director of Beijing Huangshu Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital, says TCM is a preferred form of treatment for many as it is natural and doesn't produce drug resistance, noting "traditional Chinese medicine is going global because, to put it bluntly, people need to stay healthy."

Huangshu Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital is a center and research institution for the study, treatment, and practice of acupuncture and oriental medicine.

The 9-needle acupuncture techniques that Huang bases his practice on are grounded in the Huangdi Neijing, an ancient Chinese medical text that has been treated as the fundamental doctrinal source for Chinese medicine for more than two thousand years. "It reached a new peak in the Huangdi period [the period in which the ancient Chinese medical text was written], and gradually formed today's acupuncture and moxibustion, which both cover a wide range of treatments that we offer today," explained Huang.

TCM for a first timer

As someone who had never before stepped into the world of TCM, I visited the Beijing-based branch to discover more, and hopefully, find a solution for a neck problem I've had for a year or so. The hospital spans three floors of consultation and treatment rooms, and has an English speaking doctor to help foreign patients who want to try traditional Chinese medicine.

After a quick checkup, my doctor prescribed Chinese massage, acupuncture and cupping to loosen up and relieve the muscles in my neck and shoulder. When asked why she chose this career, she explained, "Chinese medicine is another good way to help people, not only in their bodies, but also in their mind and in their soul."

This difference became immediately apparent, as I was whisked away to a quiet room with a massage bed and handed some pajamas and a cup of hot tea to relax; a world away from my usual experience in a UK doctor's surgery. After a short massage to locate the problem area, the acupuncture began. The doctor used two needle lengths,shortones for my neck and hand and longer ones for my shoulder muscles, which felt similar to a small scratch, despite their size.

While she placed the needles, the doctor explained why she was focusing on specific areas of my body, as I questioned why I required a needle in my hand, when the pain was in my neck. She explained that traditional Chinese medicine viewsa person as "one skin," where the whole body is connected, and a change in one area of the body can affect another.

After the needles were removed, it was time for cupping, where suction is created using heat (in this case fire), which is believed to mobilize blood flow and promote healing. The sensation was bizarre, like someone pulling on slightly sunburnt skin. Although not painful, it's an unusual sensation to somebody who has never experienced it before.

While I was still in somewhat of a trance, the doctor gently moved me into a number of positions and applied pressure – amounting to an almighty crack from the problem neck area. I was starting to see why TCM had remained so popular, as I quickly realized that the dull ache in my neck had disappeared.

TCM moves overseas

TCM is no longer only popular in China, and has been slowly moving overseas for a number of years. According to Huang, although TCM had made appearances in other countries before, it really entered the western limelight in 1972 when then U.S. President Richard Nixon visited China. "When Nixon visited China, we performed acupuncture anesthesia. This incident was published by the New York Times alongside the Apollo 17 Lunar landing, which set off an acupuncture fever in the United States."

Since the 70s, China's relationship with the world has changed dramatically. China's reform and opening up policies, along with extensive foreign trade in services thanks to Belt and Road links, has promoted the development of TCM culture to the world, not to mention the move of many Chinese citizens abroad for both study and work. They brought with them Chinese medicine, which in turn has become an alternative medicine in many western countries. Moreover, details regarding traditional Chinese medicine will be included for the first time in the 11th version of the World Health Assembly's global compendium, which will be published next year, according to Thepaper.cn in September, meaning that more people will become aware of the benefits of TCM as it is further publicized by global health organizations.

According to Huang, his hospital made an early start in trade in services abroad, and opened its first overseas hospital back in 2002, with hospitals still running in Jakarta and Surabaya, Indonesia.

"Back in 1996, I was already treating patients, mostly politicians in the Philippines and in Thailand. We also receive a lot of patients from abroad, from Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. We are also establishing an exchange program with Russia, from which international students will come to study our unique acupuncture microsurgery."

Huang explains that since Chinese President Xi Jinping first proposed the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, the hospital wanted to put more focus on service trade - to export treatment and to bring in patients from other countries.

Huang Shu(L), Director of Beijing Huangshu Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital posed for a photo with a German patient who had suffered from lumbocrural pain but recovered after Huang's acupuncture microsurgery treatment.

China's reform and opening-up has witnessed more TCM doctors travel to, and exchange with, even the most unexpected of countries. For example, Liang Baoping, an official with the Health Commission of Gansu Province, told xinhuanet.com in October that a project to build a TCM medical center in Madagascar is currently underway. "The Chinese government will allocate 5 million yuan (about 720,000 U.S. dollars) to dispatch experts to the center in Madagascar and to improve the country's ability in disease prevention by using TCM," Liang said.

As China opens up further to the world, more foreigners are visiting the country than ever before, meaning more come to understand and appreciate TCM. According to an article published by Beijing Daily on Oct. 15, a TCM experience center will be built for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing to provide medical services and spread TCM culture. TCM services were already recognized at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, with a plethora of western athletes such as Michael Phelps showing off the well-known marks of cupping and other TCM methods during the event.

"We have made efforts for Chinese medicine to reach the rest of the world, and now Chinese medicine is gradually becoming accepted. With the establishment of the World Acupuncture Federation and the establishment of the 20-year Acupuncture and Moxibustion Association in Shenzhen, Hong Kong and the Chicago College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is inevitable that Chinese medicine will be accepted as an alternative medicine around the world," explained Huang.

Traditional Chinese medicine modernizes at home

Although TCM has an extensive history, its roots aren't solely entrenched in the past. Doctors have been developing new techniques to use TCM as an alternative method of surgery. By studying the ancient nine-needle therapy and combining it with modern anatomy, Huang's hospital has established a type of acupuncturemicrosurgery, which, Huang assures, can solve medical problems in a less invasive way than a traditional operation.

"The remarkable characteristic of acupuncture microsurgery is that it can solve the problems that western medicine cannot remedy without surgery. Many patients come to us when they have already had an unsuccessful operation, and walk away cured."

By using acupuncture microsurgery, patients can have the treatment and go home on the same day. Those with more severe symptoms are usually advised to stay in hospital for 3-5 more days of observation. "The uniqueness of the surgery is that we can relieve patients from the need of surgical cuts," added Huang.

By combining ancient methods with modern principles and ideas, it's easy to see why TCM is standing the test of time. More than the science behind it, the draw, for me at least, is the way that traditional Chinese medicine assesses the whole body as one, the way the methodswork together and encompass your body and mind. After two hours of treatment, I felt calmer than I had done in weeks, but I also felt more centered and aware of my own body. Better yet, I have hardly felt any pain in my neck since, so the treatment's intended purpose definitely worked.

Amid stressful modern life, it's clear why so many people are looking to TCM for a holistic, drug-free way to deal with both internal and external problems, and why it’s becoming more popular overseas.

"Traditional Chinese Medicine is a culture that should be spread throughout the world, and my mission is to communicate it to the rest of the world," said Huang. 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)
(Web editor: Liu Ning, Bianji)

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