Isn’t Chinese medicine just a bunch of spiritual mumbo-jumbo pseudo-science?

There are quite a few folks who would like to discount Chinese medicine out of hand. These people are unlikely to be convinced of its benefits until Western materialistic methods so thoroughly confirm it that there is no shadow of a doubt. Really, this group of people want to see all concepts of Chinese medicine translated into Western terms – eventually rendering Chinese medicine as just a quaint alternative way to discuss In my opinion, this promised land of verification is unlikely to be achieved. Much of the benefit of Classical Chinese medicine simply cannot be verified by the current commonly accepted forms of study. This is not to say that some level of verification is impossible to achieve – I think some level can and will be achieved. It simply isn’t likely to come from the land of double-blind placebo controlled studies or the realm of extraction, purification and verification of individual chemicals within herbs. No such verification is necessary, as Chinese medicine grows from its own ground and has internally consistent methods of testing and verification that have yielded a medicine that is remarkably safe and effective.

There are other people who, instead of discounting the medicine out of hand, simply want to strip it of all of the elements that seem to conflict with the findings of materialism. This is what Mao and Co. did when they took the diverse and interrelated parts of ancient Chinese medicine, sanitized them and gave birth to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). This is what many people continue to do. The argument is that discussions of Spirit, demons, elementals and possession are superstition, while Qi and Blood are medicine. To make Chinese medicine relevant, they say, we need to purge it of all of that silly nonsense and retain that which is more reasonable.

To be sure, there are things that should be included in the official canon of Chinese medicine and there are things that should not be included. But to purge things simply because they relate to non-material aspects of being or involve language that some people are uncomfortable with is irresponsible. We need to understand what these things mean, interpret them within their ancient context and understand their relevance. It may be that we find different language is more appropriate for our contemporary context to describe some of these concepts – or it may be simply that we need to discard our prejudice and embrace more complex medical terminology.

Let’s take one concrete example – the concept of Shen 神, often translated as Spirit. Shen is said to be the domain of the Heart, it is also said to be the light of consciousness, the animating principle. It is present in every part of the body, carried in the blood, but it is uniquely carried in the Heart. The primary pathology involving Shen, “Shen Disturbance” is often likened to various forms of mental illness. To illustrate, in the Neijing, Qi Bo says, “神 有 餘 則 笑 不休 , 神 不 足 則 悲” which can be translated as “When Shen is in an excess state, one has hysteria or mania. When Shen is in a deficient state, one has depression or profound sadness.” Here we can see the emotional dimensions of the Shen. It would be tempting to leave it at that, but elsewhere in the Neijing and other texts we find many different functions and concepts attributed to the Shen. Some of these functions and concepts do relate more to “spiritual” matters as they are seen in many Western cultures. Shen includes all of these things.

I think it is this multifaceted nature of Chinese medical terminology that puts people off of it and compels them to demand that it be as monodimensional as other forms of medicine. Because many terms cannot be easily defined or put in a one-to-one relationship with easily recognized Western medical concepts, people simply dismiss it. However, it is this complexity that make the medicine so powerful. If we take the time to study these concepts, to understand them intellectually as well as experientially we can understand a complex disease like clinical depression much better. I have used this approach trying to understand my own medical problems and have found it to be very helpful in finding new treatment directions.


About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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