Visiting a Chinese pharmacy in China 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. 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. These 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 background of Chinese medicine was established more than two millennia ago. A great deal of ancient medical knowledge is preserved in the pre-China (221-207 B.C.) Inner Cannon (Nei Ching), a comprehensive record of Chinese 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 work heralded a new era in the world history of pharmacology; it includes descriptions of 1,892 different kinds of 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 him. 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.
According to Chinese legend, Shen Nung, the Chinese father of agriculture and leader of an ancient clan, took it upon himself to test, one by one, hundreds of different plants to discover their nutritional and medicinal properties. Many of these turned out to be poisonous to humans. Over the millennia, Chinese have used themselves as guinea pigs in this same way to continue testing plants for their properties of inducing cold (han), heat (jeh), warmth (wen), and coolness (liang). They classified the medicinal effects of the plants on the various parts of the body, and then tested them to determine their toxicity, what dosages would be lethal, and so forth.
For example, the stem of Chinese ephedra is a sudorific; but its roots, to the contrary, can check perspiration. Cassia bark is warming in nature, and is useful in treating colds. Mint is cooling in nature, and is used to relieve the symptoms of illness resulting from heat factors. This accumulation of experience strengthened the Chinese understanding of natural phenomena, and increased the applications of natural principles in Chinese medicine. The same principles described in the preceding are also applied to assess the patient’s living environment, his life rhythms, the foods he prefers or avoids, his personal relationships, and his language and gestures, as a tool in better understanding his illness, and suggesting improvements in various areas. Once the excesses or imbalances are pinpointed, they can be adjusted, and physical and mental health and balance restored. This attainment of equilibrium in the body’s flow of energy is the ultimate guiding principle of Chinese medical treatment.
In addition to the prescription of medicines, acupuncture is another frequently used tool of treatment in Chinese medicine. Its history antedates written Chinese language, but acupuncture was not fully developed until after the Han dynasty. Its theoretical base is the adjustment of c’hi, or the flow of life energy. C’hi flows through the body via the system of “main and collateral channels"(ching luo) of the body. At certain points along these channels, acupuncture needles may be inserted, or Chinese mugwort(ai ts’ao) burned in moxibustion, to adjust imbalances in the flow of c’hi, and concentrate the body’s self-healing powers in the points where needed. In 1980, the World Health Organization released a list of 43 types of pathologies, which can be effectively treated with acupuncture. The use of acupuncture as anesthesia during surgery or for painless childbirth is no longer “news.” Acupuncture is simple to administer, has few side effects, and has broad applications. It has opened up a whole new “hot” field of scientific and medical research.
The government has put great efforts into promoting the modernization of Chinese medicine. As a result, there are now people trained in both traditional Chinese and modern Western medical arts who have made commendable contributions to the treatment of hepatitis, high blood pressure, cancer, and other diseases that are so far difficult to treat. In the area of pharmacology, researchers have evaluated effectiveness, analyzed, tested, and formulated concentrated dosages of Chinese pharmaceutical products for commercial sale. The prescriptions for these drugs are easier to fill, and are much more convenient for the patient than the old boiling method. In the area of basic science, modern research is being conducted in the field of pulse diagnosis. The three fingers used in the past to determine illness through the feeling of the pulse are now being replaced by pressure reactors. The pressure reactor converts variances in pulse pressure into electromagnetic waves, and registers them on a screen. This data is then analyzed by a computer. Many important new discoveries have been made through unique combinations of traditional and modern science In China, the marriage of modern scientific precision with the art of traditional Chinese medicine is on the threshold of opening up a whole new world of medical diagnosis and treatment