Meine Damen und Herren,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Acupuncture has a long history of about
2000 years in China and knowledge of acupuncture has been disseminated in
Europe already for 500 years.
So, when the organizers of this congress
asked me to deliver a plenary lecture on the question “Can TCM be global?,” at
first glance I thought: it is global already!
Also, for decades I have hesitated to
touch the Ling shu. I am interested
in the history of ideas, not in the history of clinical applications of those
ideas. And I was misled by secondary literature to assume that the Ling shu is
the classic of acupuncture and nothing more.
But then, a few years ago, I thought I
cannot end my career without having read the Ling shu, and I soon realized: this is the most fascinating ancient
Chinese medical text I have ever read. I decided to prepare a first translation
following rigid European standards of philology and historiography.
So, the Ling shu is available now in English and in German, and I should
like to share with you my delight at having access to this text. You may be
wondering why I care to talk, for a few minutes, about the Ling shu when I am
supposed to discuss the issue of whether TCM can become global.
My answer is: Reading the Ling shu carefully inevitably leads to
the impression that the contents of this text most likely resulted from global
exchange. We have numerous manuscripts from Chinese tombs dating from the late
Zhou and early Han period. There are no hints whatsoever about the remarkable
medical contents of the Ling shu.
Neither are there are hints at any historical developments that eventually
might have motivated the mature contents documented in the Ling shu. The Ling shu quotes
numerous texts as part of a tradition highlighted in the Ling shu, but these text have never been seen in Chinese tombs, and
their contents differ from manuscripts found in Chinese tombs.
shu is a fascinating text. It contains so many exact morphological details
– where were these details discovered? The Ling
shu offers psychological insights into patient-physician relationships that
require years, if not decades or longer periods of patient-physician
interactions – where did these interactions take place? So far, there is no
evidence that they happened in China.
Look at the names of acupuncture insertion
holes. When the Ling shu was written,
China was a highly developed civilization with an advanced literary culture.
The names given to the needle insertion holes do not reveal a system — as one
might expect. Of course, seen individually, quite a few of the terms are
meaningful. But as a whole, they are not meaningful. Thus far, no one has been
able to explain them as a systematic terminology. My assumption is: these could
be transliterations, using Chinese phonemes to transliterate terms originating
from a non-Han-Chinese language.
One might assume that some type of foreign
knowledge was brought to China and was integrated into the two competing
genuinely Chinese doctrines of systematic correspondences, known as the yinyang
and five phases doctrines.
Most of the concepts were nicely adapted
to and further developed on the basis of Chinese yinyang and five phases
doctrines. But others escaped such adaptation and remained contradictory
forever. This applies, for instance, to the concepts of five long-term and six
short-term repositories, and to the concept of a “Triple Burner.” The latter
appears to have never been really accepted or fully understood, and there are
further such hints, which we do not need to discuss today.
This new medicine, expounded in the so
called classics of the Yellow Thearch,
often wrongly called “Yellow Emperor” in the West, did not fall on
receptive grounds in China. And there may have been several reasons for this.
Look at the derogatory treatment of the Yellow Thearch in the Ling shu dialogs.
For the most part he is depicted as an ignoramus, requesting to be taught by
some hitherto unknown experts, and sometimes he is ridiculed as a weakling who
feels nauseous when he climbs up in a high building.
shu, the Su wen and the Nan jing survived in a very fragile
state over the first 1000 years of their existence. They were lost and had to
be retrieved from Korea. By the 8th/9th century they existed only in fragments,
until a physician named Wang Bing collected and annotated these fragments,
leaving a rather non-homogenous and often corrupt text to future readers. Few
physicians used these ancient classics to further develop their basic concepts,
unlike genuine Chinese pharmaceutical therapy that thrived and was continuously
further developed .
Yang Shangshan, a Tang author, combined
the most essential elements of the Su wen
and the Ling shu in his Huang Di nei jing tai su. Without
success. If it were not for fragmentary copies that survived in Japanese temple
libraries where they were rediscovered in the 19th century, the Tai su would have remained unknown to
us. It was entirely lost and forgotten in China.
The contents of the Ling shu and the other
ancient texts were widely acknowledged as “Chinese Medicine” only in the
aftermath of Song Neoconfucianism. This was the beginning of a most fruitful
discussion of how to understand disease and health in theoretical terms, and
what were the best strategies and approaches to prevent, cure or at least
From the late Song dynasty onward a
fascinating wealth of medical literature was published, in addition to an
already rich pharmaceutical literature. Much earlier than the European
renaissance, intellectuals and philosophers in China demanded the use of
“reason” to examine the world, distrust of tradition and knowledge based on
A most outstanding landmark combining both
medical and pharmaceutical knowledge is the encyclopedia Ben cao gang mu of 1593, whose author or editor, Li Shizhen, is
honored in China this year because it is the year of his 500th birthday.
No comparable survey of the medical
potential of herbal, mineral, animal and man-made substances existed anywhere
in the world at the time. Today, as Prof. Zheng Jinsheng has labeled it, it
mainly serves as a museum where you find all manner of things, some still
useful, others obsolete.
This encyclopedia, the Ben cao gang mu, is one of the hallmarks
of Chinese historical medicine that found its way to Europe early and immediately
met an enthusiastic reception. This was at a time when a global expansion and
dissemination of knowledge, including medical knowledge, resurged anew. Such a
global expansion and dissemination took place between the ancient cultures of
Mesopotamia, the Indian continent and China toward the Far East and enriched
the Greek world in the West. Tang China had welcomed visitors from all over the
civilized world; Nestorians and many others met in Chinese cities. But it was
only beginning with the 16th, 17th century that the curtain rose world-wide
opening a new era of globalization.
Acupuncture was welcomed in Europe since
the 17th century on a broad scale. So much so, that a German medical writer in
the early 19th century spoke of an “acupuncture-mania.”
But this enthusiasm did not last forever.
In the 19th and early 20th century, modern medicine, stimulated by Rudolf
Virchow’s doctrine of cellular pathology, driven by advances in anesthesia and
surgery, and flanked by the revolutionary and immediately successful
institution of public health, gained a self-consciousness and a positive image
it had never enjoyed before. Chinese medicine seemed to be no match.
And this atmosphere was not restricted to
Europe. Even before the arrival of Western medicine, some Chinese
physician-writers were unhappy with the state of Chinese medicine. They
complained about too much theory, and they questioned the ethics of their
physician colleagues. You may take the 18th century scholar-writer Xu Dachun as
The direct military and technological
confrontation of the Chinese world view of a relationist science, evident in
the yinyang and Five Phases theories, and the European analytical science,
evident in chemistry and physics, biochemistry and biophysics, proved disastrous
not only for Chinese sovereignty and the integrity of its territory, but it
also proved disastrous for the image of Chinese medicine, in the Western world
and also in China. A lengthy series of traumas, from the first Opium War
initiated by the British in 1839 to the invasion of China and massacres
committed by its neighbor Japan, required a reevaluation of all sectors of
traditional Chinese culture and civilization.
Reformers and revolutionaries alike raised
their voice in the early 20th century and offered suggestions as to how China
might regain its legitimate place among nations. There was not one of them who
did not seek to abolish Chinese Medicine. Young people in China today no longer
know of the harsh judgments published by Chen Duxiu, the co-founder and first
secretary general of the CCP; by Lu Xun, the most eminent novelist, by Ba Jin
and many others. They all agreed: for China to regain its strength it was
necessary to adopt modern science, modern technology and modern medicine.
It is often criticized in Western TCM
circles how the People’s Republic of China has handled its enormous and most
impressive heritage of medical ideas and practices. Those who criticize the
domination of modern Western medicine in China are unaware of the severe
traumas inflicted upon China in the 19th and first half of the 20th century.
In my book The Fall and Rise of China, I have focused on these traumas, and on
the unique way – yes, unique in world history – how China cured itself and rose to be a respected nation again.
I wrote The Fall and Rise of China. Healing the Trauma of History simply to demonstrate, how the tradition of Chinese
Medicine has helped China to rise again and achieve its current status –
admired by its own people and feared by neighbors and even distant, highly
industrialized nations, for its regained political, economical and military
Chinese politics have followed the same
ideals demanded by Chinese Medicine. A close connection has existed in China
for two thousand years between political wisdom and therapeutic wisdom. This
close connection is most obvious in the common usage of the term zhi for
“ruling” and for “curing.” To foreign intruders coming into your country as
into your body, the same applies: Never blame the invader, blame yourself for
having let the invader enter your territory or your body.
In politics this means asking: why were
they able to steal our territory and to infringe upon our sovereignty? If they
can do such horrible things to us, and since we are unable to defend ourselves,
they must have a knowledge and a technology superior to our traditional
knowledge and technology. Let us acquire these things, and once we have
acquired them, we shall never be victimized again.
This is the secret behind the rise of
China and this is why I wrote the book The
Fall and Rise of China. It was to show how deeply ingrained Chinese
medicine is in Chinese culture. Without an understanding of these intimate
relationships, neither general Chinese politics of the past 100 years and
today, nor China’s politics towards its traditional medicine can be understood.
And, of course, this is also most relevant when we return in a minute to the
question “Can TCM be global?”
China has paid a high price to regain its
strength and reputation. For almost 100 years its leadership felt obliged to
neglect China’s own cultural heritage, including its own medical heritage, and
to adopt Western medicine in the same way as Western science and technology.
Look at China now in 2018. In many
respects it has surpassed the West. It is more efficient in digitalization, its
surgeons and physicians master the most difficult challenges, its trains run
faster than those in Europe, and in global politics China plays an increasingly
Thus, the time has now come for China to
look back at its own traditions and to resuscitate those aspects of its
traditions it can be proud of – and Chinese Medicine is one of those aspects.
The vitriolic criticisms by Chen Duxiu, Lu Xun and others are forgotten. A new
law, enacted only a few years ago, names Chinese Medicine as equivalent to
When in the 1950s a first French
delegation went to China to inquire about the status of Chinese Medicine in the
recently founded People’s Republic, the Chinese hosts were surprised: why would
Europeans be interested in a doomed tradition? As late as 1954, Mao Zedong was
forced to react to requests aiming at eliminating Chinese medicine from the
official health care delivery system in China. Mao Zedong’s wise reaction to
these requests has been quoted again and again: Chinese Medicine is a treasure
trove. Its treasures are to be unearthed.
The atmosphere has changed. Chinese
Medicine, called “TCM” outside of China, is actively promoted by Chinese
government agencies for world wide dissemination.
Here now I may repeat the initial question
I was asked to discuss: Can TCM be global?
Again, my response might have consisted of
only a short answer, namely: TCM is global already!
After all, in 2018 it is practiced all
over the world. Not only are Chinese TCM healers found in cities and small
towns. Indigenous, local practitioners who have acquired TCM and acupuncture
competence in China or in other East Asian countries, or increasingly by local
transmitters in their own countries. They
too have contributed to a global dissemination of TCM.
Literature on TCM is available now in the
languages of most larger countries. The classical writings of Chinese Medicine
have been translated into leading Western languages and hence are accessible worldwide,
either conventionally printed on paper or on-line.
To conclude, with all this in mind one
might be tempted to say: TCM has become global.
But is this really so? Perhaps before we
decide to answer the question whether TCM can be global we should ask ourselves
what we mean by a medicine being global. Is it enough to say it is globally
Let us look, for comparison, at the one
health care and medical system that we might all agree on when it comes to its
being global or not, and that is: biomedicine.
Biomedicine has its roots in Europe.
Beginning with the 19th century it began to spread worldwide. Europeans took it
with them, to all continents, and quickly enough its advantages over local
traditions were acknowledged. Non-Europeans strove to study it, in Europe and
the USA, and wherever Europeans and Americans had decided to set up medical
schools. Non-Europeans later founded medical schools in their own countries and
wrote texts in their own languages. So far so good.
Actually, this is where TCM stands
today. On the one hand, there is China –
the motherland of TCM. It has its own history of Chinese Medicine, and it has
its own agenda of working hard to see TCM spread world-wide. In addition, there
are countless non-Chinese, non-Asian individuals in Europe, in the USA, on
other non-Asian continents, who believe that they have acquired profound
insights into TCM, who have studied and experimented with TCM and who have
added new approaches and interpretations to TCM.
Biomedicine became global when it left its
cultural affinity to Europe and opened itself to contributions by healers,
physicians and scientists from a non-European cultural background. Biomedicine
is not only practiced in virtually all corners of our globe. It also accepts
and benefits from contributions by persons and institutions all over the globe.
Biomedicine is global because it is based
on a science of chemistry and physics and their biological counterparts,
biochemistry and biophysics. It uses for diagnosis and treatments a technology
that is also based on chemistry and physics. That is, biomedicine is nourished
by a science and by a technology that are applied world-wide and that develop
further every day, every moment because of contributions from all countries,
from all civilizations, from all cultures.
Here we have to ask ourselves: will TCM
ever be able to reach this level of globalization? Or, to be more specific: are
those in charge of TCM, notably in China, interested at all in acquiring for
TCM such a level of globalization?
Let us look at names. Biomedicine is
called “Western medicine” only in China in contrast to “Chinese medicine.”
Outside of China, the term “Western medicine” has been obsolete for a long
time. It may refer to the geographical and cultural origins of biomedicine, but
it does not reflect its current reality.
The designation “Chinese Medicine” is
different. It signifies not only the geographical and cultural origins of TCM.
It also signifies an implicit claim. Chinese Medicine is Chinese and it shall be
recognized as such forever. Chinese medicine has spread to Korea and Japan, and
while its characteristics in Korea and Japan are still closely related to their
Chinese origins, it is without doubt that over the centuries Korean and
Japanese physicians and writers have contributed to further developments,
modifications and adaptations of Chinese medicine in their own countries.
In the WHO deliberations on a standardized
English terminology for traditional medicines, it was suggested to speak of
East Asian medicine or Oriental Medicine instead of Chinese Medicine. The
Chinese participants in these deliberations categorically rejected such a more
encompassing designation as hiding the origins of Chinese Medicine in Chinese
The fact is, for the Chinese side to this
day, the global spread of TCM is a one-way-street. Chinese Medicine is an
The contributions of non-Chinese
practitioners and writers to a further enhancement of TCM may have been
increasingly acknowledged by some individual Chinese TCM promoters, but they
are not acknowledged by the motherland of Chinese Medicine – that is, by those
Chinese authorities who consider themselves to be guardians of a national
character of Chinese medicine.
Consider the China Academy of Chinese Medical
Sciences in Beijing. It may be said to be the center of the protection and
propagation of TCM. It has a remarkable library. There is no comparable
institution elsewhere. And yet, this library refuses to acquire books written
on TCM in foreign languages.
gangmu may is the most impressive encyclopedia of pre-modern Chinese
pharmacotherapy. Chinese experts, some of them members of the China Academy of
Chinese Medical Science, have published in co-authorship with European and
American authors three Dictionary
volumes on, first, Historical Chinese Illness Terminology in the BCGM, second,
all the place names found alluded to in the BCGM, and, third, all the book
titles and names of persons quoted in the BCGM.
Without these dictionary volumes, scholarly
academic or scientific access to the BCGM is simply impossible. But these
dictionary volumes were published by University of California Press in the USA.
Hence the library of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences will not
Can TCM be global? With its current
one-way-export-article attitude TCM may have reached global welcome and
successful application, but it fails to be truly global.
Maybe the question “Can TCM be global?”
needs to be rephrased to “can the one-way-export-article TCM be successful on a
global market?” The fact is, the global market is increasingly filled with
competing TCM products. This is knowledge, these are approaches and
applications that share the name TCM but have developed increasingly
independently of TCM stimuli received from China.
Also, further questions are raised whether
the narrow confines of TCM specified by the TCM authorities in China do justice
to the vast and heterogeneous heritage of pre-modern, historical Chinese
medicine. TCM is only a meager digest of this vast and heterogeneous heritage.
It was constructed by committees beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. They were
required to select those elements deemed to fit into a modern health care
delivery system based on modern science and technology – the foundation of a
China aiming at regaining strength as a globally influential power.
Much of what has developed outside of
China under the name of TCM, notably in Europe and the USA, during the past
three to four decades, was and still is influenced by the myths generated and
spread in the 1970s and early 1980s by the first bestselling authors on TCM in
These were authors who went to China
without knowledge of Chinese language, without knowledge of Chinese medical
history and without personal experience in Chinese clinical reality. When they
went to China, they did not meet specialists of Chinese medicine because it
would have been virtually impossible to find such specialists who also might
have been able to communicate their knowledge in a European language.
Westerners in search of Chinese medicine
were informed by officially selected Chinese spokespersons who themselves knew
little if anything of the complexities of historical Chinese medicine. If
Western visitors were able to meet specialists of Chinese medicine, they mostly
were told only what the responsible authorities of the People’s Republic of
China had deemed as meaningful in a Chinese medicine meant to survive in a
modern China and to spread abroad.
Western audiences were influenced in the
1970s by increasing doubts in the benefits of Western science, technology and
medicine. Books on Chinese medicine and other media reports found a receptive
readership. This was a readership that was unaware that they were given not an
original Chinese Medicine but a digest.
And this digest was further alienated from
the historical origins of Chinese Medicine by fantasies and misinterpretations
introduced by Western transmitters in their books and media reports.
Here we are confronted with another facet
of the issue “can TCM be global?” To what degree are the basic theoretical
foundations of TCM as expounded in contemporary Western publications
“traditional Chinese”? Anybody who speaks of the wu zang liu fu as the “five
solid and six hollow organs” abuses the original Chinese understanding. Anybody
who continues to translate the illness terms yong and ju as “welling and flat
abscesses” betrays the original understanding. Anybody who continues to
interpret the Chinese notion of qi as an energetic concept contributes to an
alienation of Western TCM from historical Chinese Medicine.
This is not only the fault of Westerners
unable to penetrate the true meaning of historical Chinese medical concepts and
their terminology. Let us look at the Ben cao gang mu again, that most
fascinating encyclopedia of Chinese pharmaceutics and health care. Compiled in
the 16th century it quotes the best of medical and pharmaceutical literary
sources of the previous two millennia. Two decades ago, the Foreign Language
Press in Beijing offered an English version, translated by Luo Xiwen.
Luo Xiwen’s English version is faulty and
problematic for many reasons. But in view of the issue we are concerned with
here, its most blatant fault is its unconditional attempt at pressing
historical Chinese illness ideas into the straitjacket of modern biomedical
terminology. Reading this English version of the Ben cao gang mu does not
provide access to historical Chinese medicine and pharmaceutics. Rather, it
provides access to a hybrid construct that is neither traditional Chinese nor
modern Western medicine.
Many of the fantasies and
misinterpretations introduced by the bestsellers in the 1970s and 1980s have
survived to this day, withstanding sufficient information to the contrary. They
appeared and continue to appear plausible because they reflect emotions and
aspirations of a public in the industrialized Western nations that was
unsettled in the 1970s and 1980s by the energy crisis and a beginning awareness
of environmental pollution resulting from a careless handling of chemistry and
technology. A creative interpretation of “qi” as energy, and far-reaching
mistranslations of further core terms in acupuncture theory are the most
obvious examples of such idiosyncrasies.
That is, the one-way-export-article TCM
sent out from China competes with a broad selection of non-Chinese TCM
interpretations. They range, nowadays, from attempts at providing Chinese
pharmacotherapy and needle therapy with a modern biomedical legitimation, to attempts
at resurrecting the authority of the two millennia old classics of the Yellow
Thearch, the Ling shu, the Su wen and the Nan jing, now available in
philologically and historiographically sound English translations by Western
No neutral authority exists that could
select from this heterogeneous array of TCM products those elements that might
be suitable for building a single edifice of TCM that acknowledges both its
historical origins in China and worldwide contributions by non-Chinese healers
and scientists. The library of the China
Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences would certainly be overtaxed by such a
task. After all, who in that library masters foreign languages to select from
English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and other literature those
contributions that are serious and noteworthy?
When Japan in the course of the Meiji
reforms in the 1860s decided to adopt modern Western medicine, this meant
adopting modern German medicine. The Japanese invited excellent German
representatives of this medicine to teach them the new medicine, and they
adopted with this medicine German medical terminology. For one hundred years,
until it was replaced by English, German medical terminology was part and
parcel of medical university training in Japan. Japanese medical scientists
read German publications and used German themselves to publish their
How many Westerners who believe in the
value of TCM have adopted sufficient Chinese language competence to fully
understand historical Chinese medical terminology? How many of these Westerns
have acquired sufficient Chinese language competence to inform Chinese
audiences of their own contributions to a further development of traditional
The fact is, the emergence of a unified
global system of TCM is rather unlikely. Westerners from the USA and Europe to
Australia and New Zealand have developed and continue to develop countless
individual adaptations of TCM to their own world views and mentalities. Chinese
propagators, too, have often left the historical foundations and unique
characteristics of Chinese medicine and have adapted their heritage to modern
forms of marketing and life style. Successful practitioners of TCM in China
with a hundred or up to two hundred patients a day have greatly distanced
themselves from all the arguments of a holistic, individual health care that
made TCM so attractive to many Westerners in the 1970 and 1980s, in contrast to
a perceived reality of biomedicine. The request by the new TCM law of the People’s
Republic of China to open TCM facilities to financial investors will demand as
much efficiency and profit-oriented thinking from these facilities as is
customary in commercialized Western medicine.
Years ago, I have asked
myself “what is medicine?” and I have
published my answer to this question in a book of that title: What is Medicine? My
answer was – and still is – based on the fact that medicine for as long as we
can trace its history has always been carried further, in its theoretical
handling of health and disease, by stimuli exerted by more encompassing notions
of order and disorder. This has been true, as history shows, for European
medicine, now called “biomedicine,” and also for Chinese medicine.
There is hardly a nation today that might consider
a safe and successful future without modern science, modern technology and
hence biomedicine. But modern science, modern technology and hence biomedicine
also raise many questions and uncertainties. Such questions and uncertainties
in turn justify the quest for alternatives and better ways.
Such a quest is evident in the increasing
interest in TCM and its predecessor, historical Chinese medicine. Many doctors
and non-medical practitioners outside of China are encouraged by their
successful use of TCM and historical Chinese medicine in their belief that they
are on the right track.
A congress, such as the one you have gathered at here in Munich, will be most important to discuss the many TCM products and ideas on the market now. It is for such congresses to pave the way for a development of TCM that reaches beyond a competition between a one-way-export-article sent out by China and countless TCM products generated and marketed elsewhere.
By Paul Unschuld