Since the 1950s, the Chinese government has encouraged the use of traditional Chinese medicine, including herbal medicine, acupuncture and moxibustion, alongside Western medicine.
In early times, some revolutionaries took a more jaundiced view of traditional remedies. The great writer Lu Xun, for example, wrote a short story 'Medicine' in 1919 describing a family's desperate attempt to cure their consumptive son with a mantou (steamed bread bun) soaked in the blood of an executed criminal.
Strengthening the scientific basis of Chinese medicine and stripping it of remnants of a superstitious past has not been easy, and the campaign against the Six Evils included an attack on feudal superstition. A cartoon appeared in Satire and Humour in early 1989, shows how initial attempts to cure a child's illness with witchcraft failed, and the witch's trick of making blood appear as she stabs the straw figure is exposed by the boy's teacher as a simple chemical colour change.
Moxibustion aijiu is another important technique in Chinese medicine. The Chinese mugwort, when dry, is known as moxa, and this material gives out a steady heat when burned. It is the heat which is used, often in conjunction with acupuncture, to treat certain illnesses. The combination is called zhenjiu.
There are two main types of moxibustion. Direct moxibustion involves placing a cone of moxa on the skin, lighting it and allowing it to smoulder until the treatment is over. Sometimes a blister is allowed to form, or the cone may be removed before a blister appears.
Indirect moxibustion employs a thin disc of garlic or ginger between the smouldering moxa cone and the skin. Presumably vapours from the disc help the treatment as well as moderating the heat entering the skin.
Finally, a 'cigar' of smouldering moxa may be held near the skin, allowing a wider area to be affected by the warmth.
Weighing out traditional medicines at a dispensary. © Sally & Richard Greenhill Photo Library
Acupuncture, known as zhenci in Chinese, is an ancient technique involving the insertion of needles into the body.
The needles themselves can he stainless steel, silver or gold, and of course have to be sterilised and used only by a qualified practitioner.
Acupuncture is capable of treating a wide range of illnesses, including muscular complaints which are not easy to control using Western methods. The theory of acupuncture involve belief in the existence of channels in the body called jinghuo, often translated as 'meridians'.
These meridians are the routes through which energy qi travels through the body. If there is a blockage in the jingluo, the inability of the qi to move freely causes symptoms of disease. The needles are inserted at certain points Xuewei where the needle can stimulate the flow of qi. The diagram of the head shows the jinghuo in the head and the acupuncture points which can be used. Acupuncture can even he used as an anaesthetic, numbing certain parts of the body without using drugs and with the patient fully conscious.
Traditional Chinese medicine uses an immense range of plant and animal products to treat illnesses. The illustrations below come from a handbook of herbal medicines published in China in 1969 and from Chinese Materia Medica by Bernard E Read (Peking, 1941)
© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001 David Wright, reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 134, Page 30, 1990
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
If you have any comments, updates or corrections please let us know via our Contact page.