Understanding Today’s TCM

Dear BPCWAians, Continuing from last week, we want to answer if Christians can take Chinese medical herbs, have massages, and needle treatments. In order to answer that, we need to first look at the meaning of the terms TCM and Chinese medicine, and then understand some principles.

The terms TCM and Chinese medicine. In today’s common usage and context, the term “TCM” (an acronym for Traditional Chinese Medicine) refers more to relatively recent developments in Chinese medicine’s long history. As such, though it is called “Traditional”, it may be a different form from how Chinese medicine was practiced when it first began. Chinese medicine in all its components has 4,000 to 5,000 years of history whereas this form of TCM, from its development and in the currently popularised form taught in universities, has around 2,500 years of history. So, in the Pastorals, what we are covering is what is known as today’s TCM, covering the latter part of Chinese medicine history. This relatively modern TCM has its fundamental principles based upon the Taoism (generally recognised to have begun 2,500 years ago) teaching of Yin Yang Qi philosophies. So, we are not against all components of Chinese medicine, but specifically on Chinese medicinal principles based on the balancing and harmonising philosophies of Yin Yang Qi. It is not Qi that gives life, but “The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life” (Job 33:4). God provided medical discoveries through China in His common grace which benefited man. Besides the more well known TCM areas of herbal, massage and acupuncture cures, Chinese medicine also encompasses other fields such as treatment of wounds, trauma, joints, among others. It is the TCM component which is based upon Taoism’s Yin-Yang Qi that Christians cannot subscribe to.

Which Qi? This later form, TCM, applied Taoist’s religious philosophies to the earlier original thousands of years of Chinese medical practices. Early Chinese medical practice recognised the importance of blood for life and healing. For example, they observed and understood the importance of Qi, which is more about oxygen in the blood for health and healing. Moreover, early Chinese medicine also documented antidotes to treat different illnesses using natural herbs. But Taoism applied its cosmological Qi (vital energy of life in the universe) and mystical counterbalancing Yin Yang forces to heal illnesses. This latter Qi (a mystical energy) differs from Chinese medicine’s early focus on the importance of oxygen and blood. With this Taoist philosophy of mystical Qi, they saw cures as the counterbalance of the Yin-Yang Qi instead of as antidotes. This trend began to take over the majority thinking of TCM. From there, and for about 2,500 years, Taoism’s Yin Yang Qi began to inform medical works, and medical theories began to be systematised based upon this religious philosophy. The Taoism logo depicts the needed flow and balance of the Yin Qi (dark part) and Yang Qi (white part). It believes that the universe is shaped and maintained by two fundamental Qi forces called Yin and Yang.

What is TCM today? Sadly, you will be hard pressed to find any Chinese Medicine school today which does not teach Chinese medicine as predominantly this form of TCM, which uses Ying Yang Qi as its first and fundamental principle and basis. Visit the websites of China’s top 2 ranking Chinese medicine schools, Beijing University of Chinese Medicine and Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine, and you will find that their TCM curriculum of the Basic Theory of Chinese Medicine begins with “Yin- Yang Theory” as the basis for TCM. This is representative of what is covered in the Chinese Medicine faculties of other universities in China. You will likewise see the same fundamental curriculum with Taoism’s Yin-Yang Qi in universities and colleges teaching TCM in Hong Kong, Singapore, and United States. After last week’s Pastoral, some enquired as to why it was said that all TCM is based upon the Yin-Yang Qi principle. Well, by definition, this is what TCM has come to stand for. TCM practitioners may not mention Qi and Yin Yang in their treatments, but it is still the basis upon which they function. I hope this clarifies the terms. To re-emphasise, it is not Chinese medicine that we are against per se but this TCM which is based upon Yin- Yang Qi that we must be wary of.

The Principles. So, can a Christian have massages, needling, drink “liang teh” or “cooling drinks”? Just because some religions worship cows as gods does not mean Christians should not eat beef, nor use other parts of cows for various uses. Just because TCM uses Yin-Yang and Qi philosophies does not mean that the herbs and the treatments it uses are not to be used by believers. But there are some important qualifications. Firstly, we must reject anything that is superstitious. Secondly, we must not apply its Qi (vital life force) and Yin-Yang balancing principle in our thinking and usages. Anything more than that is syncretism. Thirdly and importantly, the believer must know that the intrinsic value in herbs are God’s creation and His common grace to mankind. We must attribute its benefits to God’s goodness rather than to the Taoist philosophy of Qi. God gave useful medical discoveries to many countries including China. So, current TCM’s Yin Yang philosophies holds no propriety to it. Needle treatments, massages, and herbal drinks have medical explanations behind them, not mystical balancing of Qi forces. Of course, we reject anything that is mystical or superstitious for example transferring of Qi energy from the practitioner’s hand to your injured parts. Massages and needling basically causes micro traumas and injuries which activates the brain to send more blood to that area. This is why relief and healing occurs. Massage increases blood flow and natural well being. Herbs are God’s creation. He put in them nutrients for man’s benefits, because “the living God… giveth us richly all things to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17). Christians can drink “liang teh” or “cooling drinks” but we should not attribute it to the Yin-Yang balancing of heatiness for example. Different herbs and food have inflammatory or anti-inflammatory effects, not Yin (cool) and Yang (heaty). But we are often accustomed to using these terms. We just need to be mindful what we mean, having understood the difference. Let it begin with this transformation in the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2). Just like we used to say “lucky”, now we learn to say “thank God”. Now we receive it with thanksgiving and we say we partake of God’s nutrients, not Yin Yang (1 Tim 4:3,4).

Yours in our Lord’s service