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What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?


The following is a greatly simplified explanation of Chinese Medicine, meant to give the reader a brief overview and explanation of this medical system.

Chinese herbal medicine goes far back in time, some sources say 3,000 years. According to some Chinese Medicine is one of the oldest continuously practiced medical systems in the world. It is also the second largest system after Western Medicine. The earliest written records are the The Emperor Shen Nong's Classic Herbs. Already in as early as 100-200 AD the knowledge of surgery, acupuncture and Pulse Diagnosis was compiled. The most important document of Traditional Chinese Medicine, The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine was written in 3rd century AD. Since then the system has continuously been expanded and refined in response to changing clinical situations. There are literally thousands of formulas to draw on. These are constantly updated to be more useful for current health situations.

In order to understand the TCM system one needs to shift ones thinking away from Western medicine. Think of specific geographic area, you can view this area using a traditional map. You can also view the same area with a topographical map or a flight map, etc. They are simply different ways of viewing the same geographic area. TCM therefore provides a different map with which to view the body and it's functions.

TCM concerns itself with the Yin and Yang of things. Yin and Yang describe everything in the universe. Yin is about things such as the shady side of the mountain, nurturing, water, calm, blood, the inside of the body, cool/cold, stillness, etc. Yang describes the sunny side of the mountain, activity, hot/warm, movement, qi, outside of the body, etc. TCM also considers the Qi and Blood. Qi is the vital energy that moves everything, energy is a manifestation of Qi. Blood in Chinese Medicine is more than just the blood in our arteries and veins. It is considered a substance which nourishes and moistens all tissues. With little (Deficient) Blood the body can't function and becomes withered and dry. Qi relates to Yang as Blood relates to Yin, and we need Qi to move Blood. Without movement things stagnate. Qi is said to be the commander of Blood and Blood the Mother of Qi.

In addition to these concepts in TCM there is also Essence which is a fundamental, essential material the body needs to grow, mature and reproduce with. We inherit Essence from our parents and this natal Essence forms our basic constitution, vitality and strength. Essence gets used up over time or is used up with "intemperate" living and when it is used up, we die. But we also add to our Essence with what we eat, and drink and the air that we breathe. So if we eat a healthy and balanced diet, live a healthy lifestyle, get enough rest and sleep, have healthy attitudes and healthy relationships we don't use up our Essence prematurely and are able to live long, energetic and productive lives.

Of course there is more. In addition to the Qi, Blood, Yin, Yang and Essence, TCM also considers the Viscera and the Bowels; the organs, tissues, senses, spirit and Emotions. These Viscera and Bowels, are paired and describes not just the organs themselves, but also how they function within the body. Each are responsible for specific functions and give themselves expressions in specific tissues, senses, the spirit (will, thought, souls, corporeal soul and ethereal soul) and emotions. Finally there are the Triple Burners, the Channels and Network Vessels. These are the Meridians that are accessed with Acupuncture and also with Moxabustion.

Most traditions around the world consider a number of foods to be useful in healing certain health issues and illnesses and so it is with Chinese Medicine. Certain herbs were some times prepared as part of porridges (jooks) or in a soups (congees) or other dishes. The jooks and congees would be prepared in the home, since most families had some understanding of herbs and healing foods. But traditionally herbal therapies given by the physician is given as teas. The formula would consist of a number of herbs chosen for the individual. They were cooked gently in special earthen pots, then strained and drunk a cup in the morning another at night, sometimes even three times a day. This was done for the period of time prescribed. Sometimes the herbs were given as tea pills, herbs were cooked till the liquid had thickened and were then rolled into little pills. Many contemporary practitioners use granulated herbal tea extracts, which often allows for greater compliance by the client/patient. The wise old people were sometimes given herbs steeped in wine or something stronger and were told to drink a small glass once or twice a day. Herbs could also be given as liniments, ointments and plasters to be applied topically.

There are a number of excellent books in prints on Chinese Medicine as well as the healing power of foods from many herbal traditions.

If you want to learn more, read books such as The Web that Has no Weaver, by Ted Kapchuck, Between Heaven and Earth by Harriet Beinfield and Efrem Korngold, books from Blue Poppy Press by Bob Flaws and Chinese Traditional Medicine by Michael Tierra. These books can explain this fascinating subject in greater detail.

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Traditional Chinese teapot for brewing herbal teas. Korean teacup and assortment of herbs for tea


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