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Chinese medicine strikes back at critics

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China may be gearing up for its own version of the 'creationism in the schools' debate.

Arguments between between proponents of traditional Chinese medicine and critics who wish it would give way to modern science are nothing new, but recent months have seen a flurry of debate over the subject. Professor Zhang Gongyao, whom we last saw advocating the retirement of the lunar calendar, launched an online petition to do away with Chinese medicine.

Predictably, this campaign drew criticism from TCM supporters, but it also was condemned by some of TCM's strongest critics, who felt that matters of science shouldn't be decided by poll, and who would rather see a clear, convincing demonstration that traditional remedies are ineffectual at best.

At a Chinese medicine conference in Chongqing yesterday, the first held since Zhang "declared war" (in the words of China Association of Chinese Medicine president Ma Youdu), representatives said that those seeking to do away with the discipline are ignorant of 5000 years of Chinese civilization. From Chongqing Morning Post:

To address the "Farewell, Chinese Medicine" affair, many scholars suggested that the knowledge and understanding the public has toward Chinese medicine needs to be increased.

Professor Ma Youdu told this reporter after the conference that the discipline is currently readying a recommendation for the government, through the NPC and CPPCC, to put information about Chinese medicine and pharmaceuticals into middle- and primary-school textbooks to promote Chinese medicine among the next generation and to protect the national heritage.

Chongqing Evening News provides more commentary, courtesy of Xuan Wen, head of the American Institute of Chinese Medicine*:

Some people believe that Chinese medicine is a stew of philosophy, metaphysics, superstition, folk medicine, and witchcraft. Dr. Xuan Wen said bluntly, "It is meaningless to debate whether Chinese medicine is or is not science."

"In the US, Chinese medical treatments may not use western medicine; otherwise the doctors will lose their ability to practice. For this reason, the Chinese medicine as practiced by local practitioners is highly pure." As an example, he said that China, along with ancient Greece, India, and Egypt, was one of the four great countries for medicine at the time, but the other three were marginalized or even eliminated by western medicine because they did not emphasize refinement and propogation. Chinese medicine is currently facing similar difficulties; many people believe Chinese medicine can only function as a therapy, and their understanding of what illnesses it can treat is quite poor.

Xuan Wen warned that if China does not adopt measures to protect Chinese medicine, in less than 20 years, domestic practitioners will have to go overseas to find masters. To this end, he believes that the current online criticism of Chinese medicine is a good thing: "Western medicine is a technology, and will change as science and technology develop. Chinese medicine is a form of culture, and is formed bit by bit as its base is handed down."

There's a lot here for the skeptics to weigh in on tomorrow, as no doubt they will - in the past two months, over 300 essays on Chinese medicine have been posted on the XYS website alone.


Note: I'm not certain about the English names of Xuan Wen (宣文) and the American Institute of Chinese Medicine (美国中医研究院), which seems to be located in downtown Guangzhou.

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Comments on Chinese medicine strikes back at critics

This truly is 禮失而求諸野. As a TCM enthusiast, although I can read Mandarin fluently, I almost never use contemporary Chinese textbooks, simply because they stray too far from the original tradition. Instead, I use a combination of western literature (e.g. Manfred Porkert) and Classical Chinese texts.

Of course, as in most orientalist genres, many western texts are flaky and superficial. But the good ones bear no comparison, either in the West or in China. And good western texts are much more likely to be purist and driven by traditional theories.

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