The Changing Role of Traditional Chinese Medicine in the 20th Century

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China map in 1933

This is a map of China under Communist rule, in 1933. Image by Wuchang Ya Xin Di Xue She.

In 1911, the Qing dynasty was overthrown, and in 1912 the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT, in Chinese) came to power under the leadership of Dr. Sun Yat-sen.

Sun Yat-sen was a Western-trained physician. He studied medicine and Christianity in Hawaii, and was, in general, greatly impressed by western culture. Dr. Sun Yat-sen believed that China needed to modernize and Westernize. He advocated the rejection of many aspects of traditional Chinese culture, including its religion and ideology, political organization, and traditional medical practices.

This attitude had increased in popularity among the educated elite in China for a period of at least 100 years, due in great part to the influence of Protestant missionaries who had introduced Western medicine along with their religion. In the minds of the Chinese would-be reformers, Christianity and the West shared a link with scientific thought; the reformers viewed traditional Chinese culture as backward and inferior.

The People's Republic of China

The People’s Republic of China flag – Communists took power after the civil war of 1946-1949. Image by Daderot.

China: Social and Political Changes

Political turbulence and upheaval marked (and marred) the first half of the 20th century in China. Political power changed hands a number of times, until the civil war of 1946-1949 resulted in a clear victory for the Communist Party. Throughout this period, the prevailing political leadership was antagonistic to TCM and sought to abolish it.

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Nevertheless, TCM remained popular among the masses. In sharp contrast to Western medicine, TCM was familiar, as well as being inexpensive and readily available. Perhaps, too, its proponents based its popularity on its effectiveness. By the early- to mid- 1950s, the use of acupuncture and herbal medicine had become standard practices in many hospitals.

In addition, many hospitals opened clinics to provide, teach and research TCM. Practitioners began to challenge the attitude that TCM was based on non-scientific thought.

TCM During the Cultural Revolution: 1966-1976

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), TCM suffered a major setback. The government regarded it as an outdated artifact of a “non-scientific” tradition and banned TCM. The communists purged TCM practitioners from schools, hospitals and clinics. Many practitioners suffered imprisonment or were killed during this period of anti-TCM government.

With the end of the Cultural Revolution, TCM was able to re-establish itself throughout China. In 1979, practitioners founded the National Association for Chinese Medicine, and experts edited and republished many TCM texts.

Integrated Medicine, Or CAM

The renewed acceptance of TCM did not mean the automatic abandonment of Western medicine. Instead, Chinese medical professionals  practice traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine side-by-side in Chinese hospitals. Medical practitioners at hospitals all over China often receive training in both medical traditions.

In recent decades, this kind of medical practice has become widespread throughout the world and is known under several different terms. CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) is the term most often used in the USA. In other countries, Integrative Medicine or Integrated Medicine are terms frequently used to describe the combined use of Western medicine along with various non-Western medical practices.

CAM emphasizes the doctor-patient relationship, and views the healing process as a product of the collaboration between them. It also assumes that the human body has a natural capacity for healing, and that health is the “normal” state of being (whereas illness is a deviation from the norm). Alternative health practices (including TCM) are usually evidence-based, rather than based on scientific research using Western standards (that is, randomized control trial methodology). Western doctors are gradually accepting such medical practices, while, at the same time, TCM is rapidly evolving into a scientific, research-based practice.

The Worldwide Acceptance of TCM

At least one TCM practice – acupuncture – became popular in Europe by the 1950s. But Americans were not aware of the value of TCM until 1972, when Richard Nixon’s staff visited China. At that time, staff reporter, James Reston, became ill and practitioners treated him effectively with TCM. This brought the efficacy of TCM to the eyes of the American public in a dramatic way.

Since the 1970s, Chinese hospitals have trained students from more than 100 countries in the principles of traditional medicine. The number of practitioners in the United States has grown rapidly following the legalization of acupuncture in Washington D.C. in 1972. In 1980, the World Health Organization released a list of 43 types of pathologies that can be effectively treated with acupuncture.

In the 21st century, the acceptance of integrated medicine/CAM has become increasingly widespread, and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners all over the world conduct serious clinical trials, using Western medical standards, and publishing the results of their research in a multitude of Western medical journals.

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© Copyright 2014 Leslie Cohen, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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