The Differences Between Traditional Chinese Medicine and Classical Chinese Medicine

This is an old article written when I was relatively new on the scene of Classical Chinese Medicine.  While I’ve learned a lot since then – I still think it serves as an interesting introduction to the whole conversation.  

On this site, I talk a lot about Classical Chinese Medicine (CCM) as the school I studied at (and now work at) is devoted to the study of that particular form of Chinese Medicine (CM).

CCM is distinguished from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in a number of ways, some of which I will try to make clear here.  Note that TCM is the type of CM known (and used) by many people in the Western world, as well as in China.

The first and most fundamental difference between CCM and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is that the former draws most deeply from the Classical literature of CM when interacting with patients. The intake process, the patient-doctor interaction, the methods used for diagnosis and the form of the diagnosis, the application of acupuncture, herbs and other modalities, the reasoning out of prognosis – all of these should be primarily (if not completely) based on Classical sources and their most faithful commentaries. TCM, although it does pay attention to the Classics – and some TCM practitioners take it on themselves to delve more deeply into the canon – does not rely primarily on these sources in its practice.

What are these Classics?

This is open to some degree of interpretation. Most would agree that the Huang Di Nei Jing 皇帝內經 (Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic), the Nan Jing 難經 (Classic of Difficulties) and the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing 神 農 本 草 經 (Divine Farmer’s Herbal Classic) and the Shang Han Lun 傷寒論 (Treatise on Cold Damage) are the foundational texts of this medicine. Others might add other medical texts and all would certainly include commentaries and further developments of these basic works. All of these books were written during or before the Han dynasty.

You may be wondering what possible relevance books written 220 A.D. and prior could have for contemporary medicine… a fair question. This is an issue I will certainly be discussing on this blog, but for now let me just say that my empirical relationship with this medicine has led me to believe that a nearly rigid adherence to the Classics produces excellent clinical results. Let that be okay for now.

CCM simply takes its historical and cultural roots very seriously. It pays attention to the fact that many medical classics thought it of vital importance that practitioners cultivate themselves using the arts, contemplation, interaction with nature and various esoteric practices. It asserts that the Classical texts are not the mistaken ramblings of a primitive people but a record of (parts of) a sophisticated medical system that has vital relevance for contemporary people.

CCM does not make its primary aim to justify itself in the language and method of Western scientific materialism. It does not sacrifice the knowledge that comes from grappling with difficult, often symbolic, literature for the sake of quick and easy one-size-fits-all treatment protocols.

My personal experience of the difference between TCM and CCM has been profound. While TCM has some approaches that have clinical effectiveness and while its insistence on becoming closely entwined with Western medicine has had a few positive impacts on the profession, it doesn’t come close to transforming people’s situations in the way that CCM can and often does.

I believe this has to do with CCM practitioners’ acceptance of and ability to work with complexity. The human body is an unbelievably complex thing and a medicine that seeks to simplify relentlessly in diagnosis and treatment can’t hope to keep up. Things will be missed, and those missed things always have the potential to grow into a problem as big or bigger than the original issue.

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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