Chinese Medicine Ails from Brain Drain

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Dr. Wang Juyi examines a patient while several students stand around and observe during his Saturday morning clinic hours. Today, Wang holds clinic hours only twice a week serving mostly friends and family.

American doctor Shelley Oches explains why she came to China to study traditional Chinese medicine under Dr. Wang Juyi.

Shelley Oches left her private acupuncture practice in Louisville, Kentucky eight months ago to study classical Chinese medicine—a tradition that has largely been phased out of medical schools in China as Western medicine has come into vogue in this globalizing country.

“Chinese medicine is in a crisis in China, according to anybody who cares about traditional Chinese medicine,” she said.

China's first generation of post-revolution university medical education in the 1950s was based on classical texts. The curriculum integration with Western medical teachings has since threatened the core ideals of Chinese medicine, Oches said.

Oches studied classical Chinese literature in college before going on to study Chinese medicine at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco. The educational system is at the core of the crisis, Oches said. “It’s just not taught in schools anymore," she said. "There’s no such thing as a getting a pure Chinese medicine program.”

The curriculum at Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, where Oches teaches a class in medical terminology in English, is made up of 50 percent Chinese medicine and 50 percent Western medicine. “But it in reality, it’s even more skewed toward Western medicine, about 60 percent,” Oches said.

The disconnect with integrating Western and Chinese medicine in education is in the practical foundation. Students are learning how to use Chinese medicine based on Western scientific studies rather than Chinese theories.

“What they learn is superficial and leads them to discard [Chinese theory] in favor of biomedical theory that seems more logical, practical and modern,” Oches said. “Scientific studies have become the gold standard for truth here too, despite dissenting voices within the Chinese medicine field.”

Oches studies with Dr. Wang Juyi two days a week at the Beijing Meridian Wellness Center. Dr. Wang, 72, is among the last generation of practitioners educated with classical texts. Now, with modern Chinese medicine entering its seventh decade, the texts have adopted an entirely Western method of learning based on the individual human body systems rather than the traditional method of treating the body as a whole, which, according to purists, jeopardizes the quality and speed of results.

Dr. Wang, who has been practicing for more than 45 years, retired 10 years ago but has kept his private practice. He said he wants to spend the next few years passing down his theories based off of his practical experience.

“If you really want to understand and use classics, you get much better and faster results, in my experience,” Dr. Wang said. “I hope I can give other acupuncturists a way of thinking. That’s where I see my contribution.”

On Saturday, Dr. Wang had about a dozen patients. One was his friend from middle school, which Wang attended more than 50 years ago. With one hand holding the man’s head, Dr. Wang used the other to swiftly insert and twist needles on the man’s scalp and around his ears. Four apprentices, all either Chinese or Western medicine practitioners watched and scribbled notes.

Oches is working on a book with Dr. Wang. She will translate Dr. Wang’s lectures in which he takes passages from primary classics on acupuncture and relates it to his own experiences.

“It’s still the case that there are very few people who are truly bilingual in Chinese medicine and are not necessarily well versed in the classics,” Oches said. “Those people who are well versed in the classics don’t know English.

“There’s certainly a need for people to bridge that gap and bring more traditional knowledge into the Chinese medicine community and hopefully more and more into our educational system.”