Classical Chinese Medicine

The concept of classical Chinese medicine is currently enjoying considerable popularity in the West. Much of the interest in returning to more traditional styles of practice derives from the common belief among some Western practitioners that Chinese medical history should be bifurcated into a historical period, prior to the founding of the PRC in 1949, and the modern era which has followed. These ersatz historians aspire to return to what they describe as a pre-Communist form of traditional Chinese medicine. Medical scholars dismiss this myth, describing the twentieth century as a time of evolutionary development in the long course of Chinese medicine rather than revolutionary upheaval.

In China, the term 经 jing is used to denote “classic”. Interestingly, the same character is translated as “channel” in acupuncture theory, with both usages recalling the earliest use of this ideograph to describe the warp of textiles. This etymology implies that texts or knowledge designated as classic should be understood as the foundational framework underlying contemporary medicine instead of a separate set of ideas.

Although many Western practitioners perceive any older medical texts as classics, the Chinese themselves only identify four sources as classical: the Huang Di Nei Jing, the Nan Jing, the Shang Han Za Bing Lun (including both the Shang Han Lun and the Jin Gui Yao Lue), and the texts of the Warm Disease School. Taken together, this group of materials spans the course of more than 1,500 years and, like the inner matrix of fabric, provides a durable and sturdy base for TCM today. These essential principles not only serve as antecedents for modern medical practice but also provide alternative perspectives to solve particularly intractable cases.

In China, the other common application of the term classic or jing in medicine appears in the context of the jing fang or classical formula methodology. Jing fang proponents focus on the Shang Han Lun and Jing Gui Yao Lue—the works Han Dynasty maverick Zhang Zhong-Jing—and mostly adhere to his approaches to diagnosis and treatment. Jing fang practitioners are viewed in China not only as clinicians but are also considered textual scholars and medical historians.

Back in the West, there is little consensus regarding what exactly constitutes classical Chinese medicine. As the trend has gathered momentum, books, trainings, and, even, copyrighted methods have adopted the terminology, with most applications addressing a vague desire to restore Chinese medicine to its golden age. In some cases, Chinese instructors have made the most out the opportunity to market training in jing fang methods, finding a captive audience among Western practitioners unable to read Chinese but eager to learn “real” Chinese medicine.

Fortunately recent years have seen an increase in the availability of high-quality English translations of the seminal medical texts. Nigel Wiseman and his collaborators, for example, have provided our profession with meticulous English renderings the Shang Han Lun and the Jin Gui Yao Lue. Intrepid Western readers can now utilize these exceptional books to explore the Chinese medical tradition firsthand. Face-to-face with the less tenable practices on the one hand—one classic formula, for example, calls for the burnt crotch from trousers—and the innate ambiguity of classical language on the other, the Western student quickly realizes that classical Chinese medicine is neither sacrosanct nor simply reproduced. Instead classical texts lure the reader into deeper investigation and contemplation to plumb the depths of Chinese medical insight.