Traditional Medicine Faces Uncertain Role in Chinese Development

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

Bins of white mice, racks of sealed test tubes and beakers with unidentifiable residue are organized on shelves in a sterile room. When it comes to the practice of Chinese medicine today, the habit of reaching into a gallon-sized bin and mixing a potion of fresh and dried herbs has left the labs in Chinese medical schools following the integration of Western medicine.


Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, as with other major medical schools in China, teaches a split curriculum, featuring equal parts Western and Eastern medicine. Despite foreign influence on this globalizing country, traditional Chinese medicine clings to legitimacy.


Enrollment in traditional medicine programs has remained steady throughout the past 20 years, said Chen Changxun, a professor of herbs and pharmacology at the Shanghai university. Even so, only a quarter of the nearly 6,000 students graspthe theories behind traditional Chinese medicine, he said, adding that some think Western medicine is easier.


Ly Jian, a master’s student studying herbs at the university, said he is not one  of the students who grasps the theories behind traditional medicine.


“In Western medicine you have the ability to conduct experiments to understand,” Jian said. “But traditional Chinese medicine is too abstract. You cannot feel yin and yang. You cannot see it.”


Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on the theory of balancing hot and cold in thebody—or yin and yang-—not on scientific experiments, as in Western medicine. Doctors of traditional medicine evaluate patients by feeling their pulse and face to diagnose the problem. There is no stethoscope, blood pressure cuff or throat swab involved in a visit to a traditional Chinese clinic.


“Only the intelligent students understand traditional medicine,” Chen said. “Of course young students think it’s easy to study Western medicine. They can see the bacteria in experiments. You cannot show them yin, yang, qi,so it’s difficult to understand.”


The typical traditional Chinese medicine patients are those who have used Western medicine and not seen results, and those who use Chinese medicine as preventative measures. The traditional method used to cure an illness is determined by the severity of the illness. For more chronic illnesses, doctors turn to Western medicine. 


“For some disease, Western medicine is better,” Chen said. “The most important thingis to cure the patient.”


The theory behind traditional medicine regards the body as a whole and emphasizes preventative treatments. Western medicine isolates systems within the body to treat an illness, a concept that is now used in medical texts in China and is a subject of controversy.


“Chinese medicine is in a crisis in China, according to anybody who cares about traditional Chinese medicine,” said Shelley Oches, an acupuncturist who left herprivate practice in Kentucky to study traditional medicine in Beijing.


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


Integrating Western theory with Chinese medicine, according to purists, jeopardizes thequality and speed of results, Oches said.


Zhou Liang, a doctor at Tongren Clinic in Hangzhou, received his medical degree four years ago. He said combining Eastern and Western medical education is necessary in China to keep up with globalization.


“We have to be more modernized because we Chinese doctors have to face the whole world,” he said. “We need to make more modifications and use Western tools to accommodate foreigners.”


Although education is integrated and doctors are certified to issue Western and Chinese prescriptions, the two are not used in conjunction.


“We don’t know what harms it has to the body,” Zhou said. “We are not very sure the effect of using it together. It might be poison to the body.”


Zhou said he does not think Western influence in education and practice will threaten the state of traditional Chinese medicine. “Traditional Chinese medicine has a long history of 5,000 years and it is an important part of Chinese culture,” he said.


“Our Chinese medicine will never be replaced.”