What is it?
How to maintain a good balance between yin and yang. Chinese medicine is linked to a philosophy that believes the universe exists because of two great opposing forces: yin and yang. Good health relies on a balance between these two forces.
The legendary ancient emperors Shen nong and Huang di (also known as the Yellow Emperor), said to have lived 2,000BC, are considered the ‘fathers’ of Chinese medicine – although some modern scholars now regard them as mythical figures. Huang di is believed to be the wisdom behind the most important Chinese medical text, the Huang di Nei jing (The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon), although it’s now known that this text was compiled and revised by a number of different authors over the centuries.
Concepts of the body
Chinese medicine is closely linked to Daoist philosophy, which holds that the universe exists because of two great opposing yet interdependent creative forces, known as yin and yang.
The body is viewed as a microcosmic universe and the inner organs and their functions are classified according to their yin and yang properties. The relationship between the organs, and all natural phenomena, is described in terms of the five phases or elements (wu xing): wood, fire, earth, metal and water.
The inner organs are paired off according to their yin and yang characteristics and ascribed an element. For example, the kidney and urinary bladder form a pair and are linked to the water element. These relationships form the basis of diagnosis and treatment. For example, water quells fire, so if there’s a heart (fire) problem, underlying kidney deficiency may be diagnosed and treated.
Another central concept is that of ‘chi’ or vital energy. This is said to flow through a network of channels, known as meridians, to vitalise the inner organs. Chi also influences jing (essence) and shen (spirit) and is seen as the link between the physical body, the mind and higher consciousness.
When chi flows freely, there’s a good balance between yin and yang in the body and good health. If chi becomes blocked or deficient, owing to dietary, lifestyle or other factors, disease will ensue.
Diagnosis is based on four types of examination (si zhen):
* Observation (wang zhen) – includes tongue analysis and observation of facial characteristics, skin and gait.
* Listening (wen zhen) – relates to the patient’s voice and respiration.
* Questioning (also wen zhen) – covers diet, sleep, excretion and symptoms.
* Palpation (qie zhen) – involves taking six pulses on each wrist, one for each inner organ, and interpreting the depth, speed, strength and quality of each.
Diseases are classified according to eight principles:
* The degree of excess (shi) or deficiency (xu) of pathogenic factors.
* The yin or yang stage of the disease.
* Symptoms of hot or cold.
* The external or internal depth of the disease.
The best treatment is prevention. Ancient Chinese physicians were expected to keep their patients in good health and to lead by example by living in harmony with the seasons, eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly. Preventive treatments therefore include dietary and lifestyle advice and energetic exercises such as qigong and t’ai chi.
Once disease has manifested, therapies such as acupuncture, acupressure, moxibustion and herbal medicine are used.
What’s it good for?
Chinese medicine has become incredibly popular in the West and numerous studies have shown its efficacy in treating disorders such as eczema, asthma, menstrual problems, insomnia, digestive disorders and joint pain.
Finding a practitioner
Qualified acupuncturists can be found through the British Acupuncture Council and the British Medical Acupuncture Society. For registered practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine, contact the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine.
This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Stephen Hopwood in April 2009.
First published in October 2002.