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Chinese Medicine: Are We Getting Too “Authentic”?

As Chinese medicine takes root in a new soil, practitioners have been dealing with questions of how to adapt this medicine to a new population.  There are also questions of what Chinese medicine is, or what authentic Chinese medicine is.  And in the quest for authenticity, there is a rising movement in the U.S. to reject the model of Chinese medicine as practiced in China today – in hospitals, integrated with Western allopathic medicine – in order to reach back for a more classical, and I think somewhat imagined authenticity.

Workshops, books, websites, even entire schools in the U.S. are devoted to bringing about a more classical, more “pure” version of Chinese medicine. While many proponents of classical Chinese medicine have deeply valuable ideas and treatments, and I am in no way questioning their methodology, I feel uncomfortable when American acupuncturists deride contemporary Chinese medicine as practiced in China today.  For example, a classical practitioner laments in  Acupuncture Today that “Most teachers involved in transplanting Chinese Medicine to our [American] society are invested in modernity. They feel comfortable with narrowing the ideas of Chinese Medicine…”  Crouched in this judgment of contemporary Chinese medicine is the assumption that there is one pure classical version of Chinese medicine, and one tainted modernized one. Implicit in the  attempt to “reclaim the heritage and legacy of Chinese medicine” is the idea that Westerners are the guardians of this pure authentic classical Chinese medicine, from which modern-day practitioners in China have strayed. (Interestingly, I’ve also heard American yoga teachers make similar arguments, boasting that we Westerners rescued and are gatekeepers of yogic traditions which modern-day Indians have supposedly turned away from).

Medicine in China has always varied widely region to region and time period to time period. In fact, the strength of Chinese medicine is its recognition of plurality. Contradicting theories are studied side by side, and practitioners are expected to develop their own style based on their experience with their specific patient population.  In contemporary China too, there is great variety and creativity among practitioners, even as education and textbooks are standardized. Through my study of Chinese medicine from my family, I have met practitioners in China who draw heavily from classical cannon, but do not feel the need to stake a boundary between themselves and other practitioners. There is not one classical school of thought, and one contemporary school of thought. There are many of both — and therefore no single “authentic” or “true” Chinese medicine.

As Western practitioners and consumers of Chinese medicine, we also need to recognize our historic role, i.e. the role of Western imperialism, in shaping contemporary Chinese medicine. It is ironic for us to decry China’s incorporation and integration of Western medicine, forgetting that in the last few centuries Western medical missionaries partly shamed them into doing so, backed by the economic, cultural, and military powers that have a way of making certain forms of science more convincing in global industries.

Can awareness of the historical power dynamic between Westerners and China influence the way we frame our discussion and management of Chinese medicine in the U.S.? Can we practice and receive what Chinese medicine has to offer in all its variety? Speaking more broadly, how can we as Westerners mindfully and respectfully incorporate traditions such as acupuncture, yoga, Ayurveda, and Buddhism into our lives? I would love to hear your thoughts.

 

Rona Luo began practicing Chan (Chinese Zen) meditation at age six, and found a beautiful compliment in yoga during college. A former community organizer, she has taught bilingual yoga and meditation classes in NY and Oakland Chinatowns. She is also studying at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in SF. Connect with Rona on Twitter under @pomelolo.

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