If you are unfamiliar with TCM I suggest starting with yesterdays post
In the interest of transparency, I think it is important to note that I am skeptical of the efficacy of many TCM treatments that have not been examined by modern medicine, but so are many Chinese doctors (my discussion with doctors about TCM). Yet TCM persists, and is gaining in popularity in the West because for some people it is working.
First I think it is important to establish that there are many effective applications of TCM herbal remedies. While adherents would describe this as “proof of the system”. Western medicine (a.k.a. Science) would point out that these herbs actually contain active ingredients that treat symptoms and illnesses exactly as predicted by the scientific understanding of the body, not because of Qi blockages or Yang imbalances. TCM also includes dozens of “cures” such as tiger penis (for infertility) and rhinoceros horn (reducing fever) have been shown by modern medicine to be completely ineffective, or simply placebo effects (more on this soon).
So how can TCM be so right and so wrong at the same time?
Lets consider for a moment the origins of TCM. Thousands of years ago people realized that certain plants and animal products were useful for treating various ailments. Through experimentation, the prescription of these treatments had predictable outcomes and a system was created.
Over time the quest for not being sick, became the quest for immortality (sometime around the Qin dynasty) and experimentation expanded to include new herbs and treatments. This process continued as China’s borders reached new regions, and traders brought new goods. TCM doctors relied on apprenticeships and their own experiences to understand the effects of these cures.
The remedies that have been proven effective (as defined by modern medicine) generally come from this lineage of trial and error over thousands of years. (great example of folk-wisdom at work in modern China)
However, TCM never accounted for the placebo effect. This allowed for the introduction of remedies that relied more on superstition and subjective results rather than objective results.
In anthropological terms we can see that most of these remedies rely on sympathetic magic. Sympathetic magic refers to ascribing properties of one item to another because of similar attributes. i.e.: A tiger is very strong, so eating it would give a man strength, or that walnuts look like a brain, so they must help brain function. These treatments appeared to work, and so they were slowly incorporated into the system.
Perhaps the greatest damage has come to TCM in the past few hundred years as traditional remedies are being prescribed for ailments they were never meant to treat. Things like rhinoceros horn and elephant tusk are being prescribed for infertility as a TCM cure, despite that this actually goes against the tradition.
The most (in)famous of these treatments is snake oil. It originated in China, and arrived with the Chinese laborers that worked on the transcontinental railroad. There it was introduced to non-Chinese laborers and slowly developed a reputation as a panacea. It was sold by traveling salesmen who touted its efficacy and sold cases of the stuff then moved on to the next town before locals could realize they had been duped.
This practice eventually led to “snake-oil” being synonymous with medical shams. However it was only used in TCM for joint pain and arthritis. A 1989 study showed that the active ingredient, EPA, worked similarly to aspirin, but could be absorbed through the skin. So in spite of its dubious reputation in the West, it remains a common fixture in China.
In fact a bottle of snake-oil is sitting on my co-workers desk right now, she uses it to relieve mosquito bites. She doesn’t care about its chemical composition, or that it’s the camphor and not the snake oil that soothes the itch, all she cares about is that it works and to her this reinforces the efficacy of TCM.
Tomorrow we’ll be looking at the effects of TCM on Chinese cooking and endangered species (sadly those two overlap)