Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese medicine has been in practice since some 3,500 years ago and is still being used around the world today. 

Having its roots in Taoism, traditional Chinese medicine is based on the belief that all of the body’s organs work as one. The body’s vital energy, called chi or qi, circulates through channels called meridians that are connected to bodily organs and functions. If someone is feeling diseased or ill, whether emotionally, physically or mentally, it is due to an imbalanced flow of qi. As such, for a person to be physically healthy, all of their organs must be in working order and properly balanced. This balance is thought to be achieved through the harmony of yin and yang, two energies believed by the Chinese to affect all life. 

Ancient Traditional Chinese Medicine 

Traditional Chinese medicine is thought to have been practiced since the Shang dynasty from the 14th to 11th centuries BC. Inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells described a number of health problems that the Shang royal family faced, including toothaches, eye disorders and bloated abdomens. The ancient Chinese believed these ailments to be curses sent from their ancestors. 

The concept of yin and yang probably originated sometime in the Shang dynasty. It was believed that every being, object or phenomenon in the universe could be divided into these two aspects that were opposite yet complimentary. For example, the sun-facing side of a hill was yang, while the shaded side was yin. Yin and yang could also represent water and fire, the moon and the sun, female and male, cold and hot, among other representations. In the human body, the upper part of the body is believed to be yang, while the lower part is yin. 

Diagnostic Methods

Traditional Chinese medicine makes use of five methods to determine a diagnosis: looking, asking, listening, smelling and touching (pulse-taking). A doctor would mainly examine a patient’s face and especially their tongue, noting the tongue size, shape, tension, color and coating, as well as any teeth marks around the edge. This was partly based on the belief that various regions of the tongue corresponded to different organs. For instance, if the sides of the tongue were red, this could mean heat in the liver, while if the tip of the tongue was red, there could be heat in the heart. 

Doctors also measured their patients’ pulses for diagnosis. Pulse diagnosis was its own topic and could take years to learn, much less master. The pulse would be taken at three different locations on the radial artery along the crease of the wrist. These would be taken with the index, middle and ring finger of each hand for a total of twelve pulse counts. The rhythm, strength and volume of the pulse was thought to indicate certain diseases, together with qualities of the pulse such as “floating, feeble, slippery, quick”. 


Traditional Chinese medicine practices include acupuncture – the practice of placing needles at acupuncture points across the circulation channels to influence a healthy flow of qi. Acupuncture is believed to relieve pain and treat various diseases, and is still used today in conjunction with moxibustion, the burning of mugwort near the skin at an acupuncture point. 

Herbal medicine is another form of traditional Chinese medicine treatment. Although often called “herbal” medicine, the concoctions often make use of more than just herbs. A mixture can contain substances from animals, humans and other mineral products. There are a recorded 100,000 recipes for medicines and 13,000 components. 

One batch of medicine usually contains anywhere from 9 to 18 substances, forming the main and ancillary herbs. Chinese medicine is known for utilizing some unusual ingredients, particularly that of scorpions, animal gall-stones, bear bile, leeches and other animal products. The practice has long been criticized for using ingredients from endangered species. 35 human body parts were noted to be used in traditional Chinese medicine, although most of them are no longer in use by modern traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. One notable ingredient is the dried human placenta, thought to treat infertility and impotence. 

Women Patients in Traditional Chinese Medicine 

While traditional Chinese medicine doctors would treat both men and women, they were often treated differently. 

It was standard procedure that an adult man had to be present throughout the entire doctor’s examination with a woman, as the woman should not be left alone with the doctor, who was almost always male. The doctor would then ask about the patient’s symptoms with the adult man acting as an intermediary. Exceptions to this rule were made during pregnancy or birth complications, where older women would be consulted and take over the authority. 

Sometimes, this rule had to be broken when it was absolutely necessary that the doctor see the patient. To properly diagnose a patient, doctors had to use the methods of looking, asking, listening, smelling and pulse-taking. When women patients were involved, the doctor would be allowed to touch just enough of their bodies as was required for the examination, and the woman would often remain behind a screen for their modesty. However, this sometimes resulted in inaccurate diagnoses when the doctor’s verdict did not match with the patient’s symptoms. 

One Chinese doctor, Cheng Maoxian, was known for practicing traditional Chinese medicine in the 1600s and documented many case studies of his patients, their ailments and his prescribed treatments. He noted that the women he treated tended to be shy about their symptoms and usually did not tell him the extent of their illness, probably because of the societal expectation of women in China at the time. Moreover, traditional Chinese doctors would often consider the illness to be related to the women’s reproductive system or cycle. In some cases, Cheng faced obstacles when attempting to treat some women, due to their modesty. 

When it came to suspected pregnancies, women were likewise silent about any symptoms, usually leading men to not know that a woman in the household was pregnant until a much later stage or when complications arose. 

If a pregnancy was believed to endanger the life of the mother, Cheng would induce abortion through the ingestion of specific herbs. One of his documents details Cheng giving his wife peach kemel and Tibetan crocus as a means of abortion. However, in the social aspect of dynastic China, families often disapproved of losing a pregnancy and this could have led to some familial issues further on. 

It was also believed for a long time that women’s bodies were only imperfect variants of men’s. As such, images and drawings of the human anatomy for medical purposes were often of men, only using women when the context was specifically gendered as such. 

Traditional Chinese Medicine Today

Traditional Chinese medicine in today’s standards is mostly regarded by scientists and doctors to be pseudoscience, as there is insufficient evidence to prove the concept of qi, meridians and acupuncture points. However, traditional Chinese medicine is still in practice today – not just in modern China, but also around the world.