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Difference Between Chinese and Western Medicine 

 January 16, 2020

By  Juli

A distinct difference between Chinese and Western medicine exists. Knowing details about this difference will help you make sense of Chinese medicine philosophy and concepts and how to use them in order to live a healthier life!

The Western Way of Seeing

Parts Versus the Whole

Four blind-folded wise men gathered around the same object trying to identify what it was.

  • The first wise man felt it’s hard, bumpy texture, cylindrical shape, and height, and said, “This must be a tree trunk for what else could feel this way and stretch so high?”
  • The second wise man said, “No, no. Do you not feel that the object is long and thick like a rope?”
  • The third replied, “You are both wrong, the way the object stretches out wide and moves the air back and forth, it must be a large fan.”
  • The fourth wise man disagreed yet again, because he felt an object that moved water and stretched out long and round just like a fire hose.

When they removed their blindfolds, they saw that all of them had made reasonable assumptions but none of them was right.

They were all feeling different parts of an elephant!

  • The first felt a leg.
  • The second described the tail.
  • The third touched an ear.
  • The fourth held the trunk!
Blind men touching an elephant. The image symbolizes western medicine. Each blind man know something but cannot see the picture. The idea is that western medicine looks at parts not the whole person.

An incomplete picture

Western medicine in many ways operates like the blindfolded wise men in front of the elephant.

Researchers and doctors see parts of something and may make reasonable assumptions, even sometimes accurate findings, but often they are looking at parts of a whole.

Medical researchers in the west even break down the parts they are examining into ever tinier and tinier parts, removed completely from the whole.

In addition to breaking everything down into separate parts, Western doctors and researchers prefer to create “controlled” research environments where only one variable is being tested at any given time.

For example, if researchers want to know the effect of a medicine on people, they try to have everything the same for all the people participating in the study, so they can tell that it’s the medicine having the effect. Early vaccinations and antibiotic medicines come to mind for many people.

Researcher looking at a small diagnostic tube. The pictures symbolizes western medicine's focus on controlled research versus Chinese medicine's focus on the whole person for health.

Some important discoveries have been made using this scientific method, life changing for many people on the planet.

 Averages versus individuals

Western medicine also believes that it’s acceptable to group everyone together in categories to set up averages.

For example, when children are born, parents are most likely told, or will be told, that the baby is in the X percentile for weight, height, length, and head diameter.

People might also have made decisions about whether to give their baby medicine based on the statistics that the child is only X% likely to have a negative side effect.

The idea of breaking problems down into separate and small sections, combined with the idea that averages are sufficient to say what is right for all people, leads to a very specific type of health care.

This information is supposed to help people have context and feel confident that the information guiding their health care applies to them. The entire model of physical examinations is based on these numbers, for both children and adults.

When numbers are in a certain category, then a person is thought to be okay. If not, then this medication or intervention should be started, and so on. For example, if your cholesterol is X number, your body mass index (BMI) X number, and your hormone levels X number, these would dictate if you take medicines, how much, and what type.

Fixing What’s “Broken”

Western medical models, in addition to looking at parts of the whole, begin with finding out what’s broken and then trying to fix the broken part.

Wellness and preventative medicine are starting to take hold a little bit, but most doctors still come from the let’s fix the separate symptom without necessarily thinking about the effect of the intervention on the whole.

The image is an egg breaking. The eggs symbolize western medicine focus on fixing what's broken versus Chinese medicine, and its focus on  health and wellness.

You may have seen one specialist for one problem, another specialist for a different concern, and a third for yet another.

Often these doctors never speak to each other. Some who don’t engage in best practices might not be aware that you are seeing someone else. The chances are that all three would prescribe medication.

Controls are in place to try and help make sure the doctors and pharmacists are aware that you are taking the different medications, but sometimes people slip through the cracks.

Even though these ideas dominate, some Western doctors and other health care providers have started to question the efficacy of focusing on separate symptoms. Small scale research on the whole person is beginning to take hold.

Quick and “Easy” Fixes

The difference between Chinese and Western medicine is easier to see through the tale of “The Tortoise and The Hare.”

The tale starts with the tortoise and the hare in a race. At the start of the race, the hare laughs and cannot believe that he could possibly lose to the slow-moving hare. He dashes forward, eager to show off. When he is far ahead, the hare falls asleep, confident that he can still defeat the tortoise.

Western attitudes towards health and medicine are much like the hare. People are in a hurry and expect a quick fix.

  • “My muscles hurt, and I want the pain to stop now.”
  • “I’m hungry and I want to eat something quick and easy that I don’t have to prepare. If it fills me up, it’s fine.”
  • “Just give me a pill that knocks me out to sleep.”
A tortoise and a hair in a race. The picture symbolizes the hare as western medicine providing quick fixes that ultimately do not help people heal. The tortoise represents Chinese medicine and the slow, methodical process to true healing and health.

Reliance on medication

Many times, medicines provide the relief people seek, and fast food sates their hunger. People are like the hare, believing that if they continue these methods, they will be fine and win the race in the end.

Unfortunately, the body’s physical and emotional health suffer when toxins mask important symptoms that have systemic roots, and people do not consume food that’s good for their bodies.

Over the counter (OTC) and prescription medicines are synonymous with the western model of health care in the 21st century. Aches, fevers, and other symptoms are bad and should be controlled with the right medicine.

Each year in the United States, pharmacists fill about four billion prescriptions for a total cost of over $350 billion. There are hundreds of over-the-counter medicines on the market, and over 3200 approved prescription medications.

Have a sniffle, cough, sore throat, achy muscle, fever, headache, etc.? Take a medicine designed for that symptom. The Western view is that symptoms are the enemy you must defeat. Again, the small part, the symptom, is what matters most versus the whole system. 

Ultimately the hare loses. His way of approaching the race does not work as he hoped. A new strategy was needed, and the same is true for your health!  

The Chinese Way of Seeing

A 95-year-old man went to his eastern medicine doctor and said, “Doctor, I went to a free clinic and they checked my cholesterol. They said it’s too high, and that I need to take medication.”

The doctor replied, “You are 95-years-old, able to move around without any problems, live on your own, have all of your wits about you, and get out and about every day. Whatever your cholesterol level is, it is obviously fine for you.

Let me ask you, if you went back to this clinic and they said, ‘The average height is 5’ 9” and you are three inches too tall. We have to cut off your legs at your ankles and feet,’ what would you think? The doctors are just looking at averages. You are fine!” (Hegde, 2015).

TCM doctor & patient Qing Dynasty. This picture portrays how important it is to look at each individual patient to help heal them and keep them healthy.

Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors start by looking at their patients as whole, individual people, who are NOT compared to anyone else.

People are not even compared to themselves at other times. They are who they are in the moment.

 

 Each patient is unique

Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors start by looking at their patients as whole, individual people, not to be compared to anyone else. They are not even compared to themselves at other times. They are who they are in the moment.

In addition, the entire aim of Chinese medicine is health. The focus is not on fixing what’s broken but rather keeping people’s bodies in harmony so they can lead healthy lives.

A science thousands of years old

Before we begin, understanding Chinese medicine starts with an awareness that it developed over thousands of years through observation and trial and error.

More like scientists in the field, Chinese doctors worked with people in their actual settings not in labs. They recorded their findings which had to stand up under the equivalent of peer-review to make sure recommendations worked over time.

Numerous volumes compile this knowledge, with continued refinements over the centuries into present times. If a practitioner has received training and certification in Chinese medicine, you can feel assured that the training comes from a place of evidence and best practices tested and retested for thousands of years.

Huang Di One of the most important Chinese medicine doctors to create a written record of methods and case studies. The idea is that Chinese medicine is rooted in thousands of years of practice.

Huang Di One of the most important Chinese medicine doctors to create a written record of methods and case studies

 Yin and Yang

There are very specific ways of thinking about and looking at the body and in this article, we’ll explain one of the major ideas Yin and Yang.

The concept of Yin and Yang is a key difference between Chinese and Western medicine. You may struggle a little bit with some of the concepts because they are so different from the western model with which you’ve grown up, so feel free to email us questions!

Harmony

Think about someone who cannot sing in tune, maybe you, or a friend. Imagine the feeling when a wrong note is sung. You know something is off. Maybe you cringe or make a sour face. Hearing the missed notes doesn’t feel good, the sound is out of harmony.

Harmony is an important idea in Chinese medicine. When different functions and parts of the body are not in harmony, something is wrong and the body needs a tune up.

The goal is to pay attention to little signs of disharmony so corrections are easier.

Yin and yang symbol. It is used to portray one of the most important concepts in Chinese medicine - maintaining balance for healthy living.

How does harmony relate to Chinese medicine diagnosis? You have probably seen the iconic Yin Yang symbol. You may have an idea that the symbol stands for balance between light and dark, good and bad.

A deeper understanding may even include knowing that within every light there is a little dark, within every good a little bad, and vice versa. Let’s explore this concept further, because it captures a main difference between Chinese and Western medicine.

Relationship of Yin to Yang

Yin and Yang create each other and cannot be separated, even though we can distinguish between them. For example, inhaling and exhaling are different actions but when one happens, the other must follow.

With normal health and functioning, the actions transform effortlessly from one to the other. These ideas are correct yet only scratch the surface of what Yin and Yang mean.

Harmony results when Yin and Yang and how they manifest in the body are in balance. Disharmony arises when Yin and Yang are out of balance.

The balance between Yin and Yang is continuously changing. Picture old fashion scales. The least little addition of weight to one side will shift the balance to weigh more on the other. Such shifts continuously occur as we are influenced by factors in the world around us.

The terms are a handy way to label how things operate in relation to each other.

Ancient Chinese scales that represent the way Chinese medicine looks at balancing yin and yang to keep people healthy.

Identifying patterns

Yin and Yang also represent a different way of thinking about health and well-being from what you may have learned in the West. As described earlier, in the West the focus is on causation.

In Chinese medicine, practitioners focus on identifying patterns of disharmony and bringing everything into balance using practices, remedies, and actions developed over thousands of years.

Patterns versus isolated causation is a significant difference between Chinese and Western medicine.

One practice to help identify disharmony and correct it is the labeling of different parts and characteristics of the body as being Yin or Yang.

Look at the tables below for a breakdown of some of these divisions. These divisions are not absolute. Think of it as “more Yin” than Yang, or “more Yang” than Yin.

Parts of the body are more Yin or more Yang

Body Part or FunctionYin or Yang
Back of the bodyYang
Front of the bodyYing
Upper bodyYang
Lower bodyYin
Outer (skin, hair)Yang
Inner organsYin

Illnesses are also categorized by Yin or Yang

Type of IllnessYin or Yang
WeaknessYin
SlownessYin
ColdnessYin
StrengthYang
Forceful movementYang
HeatYang
OveractivityYang

Looking at the world and health through Yin and Yang is pervasive in Chinese thought and culture and comes naturally for people in their everyday lives.

People can assess if they are in balance and know how to make corrections, either by eating different foods, dressing for the weather, performing a specific exercise, or seeing a practitioner for treatment.

Summary

It is important to understand the difference between Chinese and Western medicine. Most importantly, Chinese medicine doctors see humans as whole beings, reflective of nature and the universe.

People’s health results from food, movement, and other lifestyle choices that keep Yin and Yang, and subsequently the body in balance.

Chinese medicine practitioners, both in China and the West, are tackling significant health issues using this approach. Some focus on menstruation and fertility; others examine prevention and treatment of diabetes, chronic digestion problems, and more.

They cure their patient’s underlying, or root problem, which eliminates the symptoms that were drawing attention to the issues.

This is a picture of Kirsten Karchmer's book Seeing Red, which uses Chinese medicine principles to treat women's reproductive health issues.

Kirsten Karchmer uses Chinese medicine principles to treat problems with menstruation and fertility

 

The value of each method

Other Chinese medicine practitioners conduct western-style studies to build western-style Chinese medicine scientific evidence. Western medicine has an important role to play in healthcare, to be sure, emergency and acute issues being at the top of the list.

For longevity and optimal health, Chinese medicine comes out on top!

We explore additional concepts of Chinese medicine, such as Qi, the Meridians, and Zangfu organs in other articles.

As always, feel free to email of your questions or if you want to learn more about the benefits of Chinese medicine!

Juli


Dr. Juli Kramer received her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction, with a cognate in Counseling Psychology, has her M.A. in Psychology, and her B.A. in History and Political Science. Most of her professional career has been in education. Motivated by the deteriorating health conditions she sees in the United States, which are in direct contrast to the abundant health she saw while living in Shanghai, China, Juli wants to use her skills as an educator to teach people about the life-saving benefits of Chinese medicine.

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