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Traditional Chinese Medicine: Views East and West

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 36.2, March/April 2012

Perhaps no gulf between the East and the West is more significant than in theories and practices concerning medicine. In October 2010 I had a wonderful opportunity—as a visiting scholar in an annual exchange program between the Center for Inquiry (CFI) and the China Research Institute for Science Popularization (CRISP)—to take a look at Chinese healing techniques. I toured the Museum of Traditional Medicine at Beijing University of Chinese Medi­cine (guided by two doctoral students), visited two clinics that used traditional methods (at one I even underwent acupuncture and a related technique) and the pharmacy connected to one of them, and made other related explorations. Here is some of what I found.

Figure 1Figure 1. The author researches ginseng at the Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

The Origins

One of the oldest forms of medical practice, Chinese medicine had ancient antecedents that are lost to history. Archaeological evidence of magical practices—including divination to determine the will of one’s ancestors, who were considered a major cause of illness (along with environmental factors, such as snow and, especially, wind)—dates from as early as the Shang Dynasty (1766–1122 BCE). Still, the system that would develop into traditional Chinese medicine stems from the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–219 CE) (Ancient Healing 1997, 278, 282–83).

China’s oldest medical text, the Huangdi Neijing (or “Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon”), stems from circa 200 BCE, when it was probably compiled by several different people rather than the mythical Huang Di (who supposedly lived from 2698 to 2598 BCE—a convenient one hundred years). It influenced future generations of medical theorists and is still cited in support of today’s Chinese medicine (Ancient Healing 1997, 282). (It also laid the foundation for most Asian medicine—that of Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and other Asian countries—although India de­veloped its own medical system, Ayur­veda [Monte 1993, 20].)

Traditional Chinese medicine is based on a pair of central concepts. The first, the Doctrine of Two Principles, holds that there are two opposing forces—yin and yang—that combine in various ways to create all phenomena. Yin and yang’s attraction creates an energy called qi (pronounced “chee”), which is held to be the life force permeating the entire universe. In the body, where it supposedly flows through certain channels called meridians, an imbalance of qi causes illness.

The second key concept in Chinese medicine is that of the Five Elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, each associated with a particular planet, one of the five Chinese seasons, and a pair of the body’s organs, among other associated qualities. Traditional Chinese medicine is a complex system that combines these two main concepts with other diagnostics. Various treatments—the use of herbs, acupuncture, and other means—are intended to balance qi and thus restore health (Monte 1993, 19–29; Porter 1997, 94–113; Ancient Healing 1997, 296–98).

Materia Medica

An entire floor of the Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine is de­voted to eastern materia medica (Latin for “medical matter”), the herbs and other natural substances used for making traditional medicines. The impressive collection of 2,850 substances in­cludes 300 taxidermy specimens; fish, starfish, turtles, owls, snakes, and bear, for example, all have their purpose. Powdered deer antler, for in­stance, is prescribed for women’s menstrual problems. Among several ancient pharmacopoeia to survive in some version, the principle one is a sixteenth-century herbalism text by a physician named Li Shih-chen. It de­scribes nearly 2,000 herbs and provides some 10,000 herbal remedies (Shealy 1996, 32).

Among the museum’s extensive collection of herbs (the bulk of the materia medica) is a display of both eastern ginseng (Panax ginseng) and Amer­ican ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) (Figure 1). I found this of particular interest because as a boy growing up in eastern Kentucky I knew rural “’sang” hunters who dug, dried, and sold the root to meet the East’s insatiable demand for an herbal remedy used to treat any lack of vitality, including impotence. In China, I sampled ginseng tea in tea houses and “tonic soup” in restaurants (including “pigeon with ginseng,” said to be efficacious for “regulating one’s energy, strengthening one’s body,” ac­cording to the menu description).

Ginseng’s root is often forked, giving it a vague semblance of a person’s body. It is probably because of this shape (the English word ginseng is de­rived from a Chinese term meaning “man root”) that medicinal properties were first attributed to the plant. The genus name Panax is Greek for “all-heal,” the same origin as panacea (Chevalier 1996, 25, 116; Encyclopedia Britannica 1960, s.v. “ginseng”).

Whereas western herbalists typically prescribe a single herb at a time, Chinese and other Asian therapists may concoct a mixture of medicinal substances—vegetable, animal, mineral—tailored to a particular person and condition. Each ingredient is based on its qi or energy value (said to be hot, warm, cold, cool, or neutral) (Shealy 1996, 72).

While herbs have a definite place in modern science-based medicine—some mainstream medical compounds are derived from plant sources—the efficacy and safety of each plant must be determined through double-blind clinical trials before it can be deemed suitable for medical use. Although many people believe “natural” medicines are inherently safe, the fact is that there are important safety issues of drug interaction, contamination, dosage, and other concerns, including the fact that use of an ineffective medicine means that expected health benefits are not realized. There is also the risk of long-term adverse effects with some herbs (Porter 1997, 92–93).

Figure 2Figure 3Figures 2–3. The author undergoes “cupping” treatment (shown here), together with acupuncture, at a Beijing clinic. (Photos by Joe Nickell)


Even more important than herbalism is acupuncture, “the preeminent form of therapy in Chinese medicine” (Monte 1993, 23). Among the oldest therapies still in use, it consists of inserting needles at any of over 350 “acupoints,” which are supposedly located along in­visible meridians through which qi flows. The purpose is to drain any excess of qi, remove blockages, and stimulate the flow of qi, thus correcting imbalances and thereby treating illnesses (Porter 1997, 19; Shealy 1996, 31).

Acupuncture, however, has begun to be subjected to the rigors of science with generally negative results. The existence of neither qi nor the meridians through which it is supposedly carried has been proven, notwithstanding the claims made from faulty studies. As to the efficacy of the treatment, evidence is mounting that previous positive studies are flawed and that acupuncture lacks intrinsic clinical value.

Researchers have demonstrated that “sham” acupuncture (i.e., phony treatments using incorrect acupoints or needles that retract like the blades of stage knives) can work as well as real acupuncture. (See Steven Novella’s “What Is Acupuncture?” SI, July/August 2011). In fact, acupuncture ap­pears to be no more successful in relieving pain than can be attributed to the placebo effect, and there is no credible evidence that acu­puncture is effective in treating any other medical condition (Slack 2010).

Some additional Chinese medical treatments are related to acupuncture. There is acupressure, a needle-less form that “involves the surface stimulation of acupoints digitally, manually, or with tools held in the hand” (Raso 1996, 4); moxibustion, the burning of moxa (dried leaves of Artemesia vulgaris) to apply heat to acupuncture points (Shealy 1996, 31); and cupping, where­by a vacuum is created in a cup (by burning combustible material inside it) that is quickly placed on the patient’s body, often at an acupoint (see Figures 2 and 3).

Acupuncture, herbalism, and other aspects of traditional Chinese medicine are viewed with nationalistic pride, not unlike the art of Chinese brush calligraphy, and criticism of it is often met with some defensiveness. Nevertheless, the practice appears to be slowly declining in China—just as, ironically, it has been gaining favor among New Agers in the West. Meanwhile, as an advanced doctoral student at the Beijing Uni­versity of Chinese Medi­cine admitted to me, Chinese traditional medicine and Wes­tern medicine are not well integrated but function in a rather parallel manner; the practice is to use both. In other words, one might be given a Western diagnosis that included labwork followed by prescription of an antibiotic and also separately be given acupuncture treatment, based on looking at the patient’s tongue and taking his or her pulse, coupled with an herbal concoction. One hopes that in both hemispheres, science-based medicine—not “Western” medicine—will prevail.


I am grateful to the Chinese Research In­sti­tute for Science Popularization (CRISP) in Beijing, especially Zhang Yunjing and Hu Junping; the Center for Inquiry (CFI), especially CEO Ron Lindsay and CSI Executive Director Barry Karr. CFI Libraries Director Timothy Binga and librarian Lisa Nolan also helped with this project.


Ancient Healing: Unlocking the Mysteries of Health & Healing Through the Ages. 1997. Lincoln, Illinois: Publications International.

Chevalier, Andrew. 1996. The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. New York: DK Publishing.

Encyclopedia Britannica. 1960. Chicago: Encyclo­pedia Britannica.

Monte, Tom, and the editors of East West Natural Health. 1993. New York: Perigee Books.

Porter, Roy, ed. 1997. Medicine: A History of Healing. New York: Barnes & Noble Books.

Raso, Jack. 1996. The Dictionary of Metaphysical Healthcare: Alternative Medicine, Para­normal Healing, and Related Methods. Loma Linda, California: The National Coun­cil Against Health Fraud.

Shealy, C. Norman, ed. 1996. The Complete Family Guide to Alternative Medicine. Shafts­bury, Dorset, England: Element Books.

Slack, Robert. 2010. Acupuncture: A science-based assessment: A position paper from the Center for Inquiry Office of Public Policy.

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at