An Introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine – 2000 years of practice in ~600 words

When I tell other foreigners that I am working in a Chinese hospital, the conversation often takes a quick detour to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Often they tell me that TCM is a much healthier choice, the evil of big pharmaceutical companies, and how thousands of years of practice have made TCM more effective. There is a lot here to unpack.

Today though we’ll just be building a basic understanding of some of the concepts central to TCM. Bear with me, understanding TCM is essential for understanding how Chinese culture views intricate systems, not just the physical body.

Modern TCM generally traces itself back to a book from the 1st century BC called “The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Cannon.” This led Chinese medicine from focusing on supernatural/mystical forces  to natural/environmental forces. It is through this writing that we see concepts like Yin and Yang, Qi and the five-elements that become incredibly influential in the ancient Chinese understanding of the cosmos.


In these first two basic concepts the most important aspect is always balance between these forces. Too much of any of these is just as problematic as too little, and this disunity leads to illnesses.

Yin and Yang – complimentary forces like (yin example first): dark and light, woman and man, yielding and forcing, cold and hot, internal and external.

Five-Elements – These forces are seen as generating and limiting each other. These elements relate to different organs, senses, colors, and tastes. Which can be used to determine which are out of balance.

  • Generating cycle: Wood->Fire->Earth->Metal->Water->Wood
  • Limiting cycle: Metal->Wood->Earth->Water->Fire->Metal

These five-elements also relate to different Yin and Yang “organs” of the body (I use “organs” because the concept is not the same as the Western understanding). These “organs” store and regulate Qi and are nourished by the blood. Restricted flow of Qi, or blockage of Qi along the meridians (like vessels for Qi) can also cause illnesses.

Note: Qi is a concept that doesn’t translate well into English. It is something like a life-force which comes from food and air, but also comes from your parents, and diminishes over time. Unlike blood, it is an invisible force.

These forces are all part of one unified system, and should be thought of as co-existing.

There are other types of forces that can cause illnesses, but I’m afraid this already fairly confusing.


When these forces become unbalanced, the treatments strive to restore the initial harmony. My TCM enthusiast friends like to say that Western medicine treats the symptoms (not actually true) while TCM treats the underlying cause.

Herbs – Over 13,000 ingredients are used to concoct over 100,000 medicinal recipes in TCM. These ingredients range from run of the mill (ginger, ginseng, rhubarb…) to the fantastical (dried seahorse, rhinoceros horn, any kind of animal penis…). Traditionally these are mixed together to create a kind of tea or soup that should be consumed several times a day, but recently many of these have been pressed into pills (still taken several times a day).

we will be looking at the effects of this in daily life more closely tomorrow

Acupuncture – While easily recognized in the West, I think its purpose is poorly understood. The basic idea is that Qi can become blocked along certain meridians, and acupuncture can help stimulate its flow. The points on these meridians connect with the different organs and systems, so acupuncture can be used to push the system back into balance. It has been proven effective for pain management and controlling nausea, but few clinical studies exist that compare it to placebo effects.

4 responses to “An Introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine – 2000 years of practice in ~600 words”

  1. Yaxue C. says:

    I haven’t had much experience with TCM except for taking a few common 丸药 and pills for insignificant ailments. In principle, I believe there should be a place for TCM, and I have read a while ago that Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies have been exploring certain herbs to cure malaria and other diseases. The problem is, China being China where everything can be faked, skimped, or outright scammed, I am afraid TCM is going to be destroyed over the time (if not already) rather than being studied, regulated and passed on.

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