Ecology and Traditional Chinese Medicine in California

By Wu, Emily | Cross Currents, June 2010 | Go to article overview
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Ecology and Traditional Chinese Medicine in California


Wu, Emily, Cross Currents


In traditional Chinese cosmology, which includes contributions from Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and other folk beliefs, the world consists of the heaven above, the earth below, and humans in the middle. The universe and all beings share the basic essence, and all are governed by the same set of principles that not only transcend but also correspond across categories and dimensions. Aspects of the natural world and different dimensions of human existence are categorized according to the shared principles of yinyang and five phases, (1) and juxtaposed. Across dimensions and existences those that fall under the same categories share a common set of characteristics and would resonate. In other words, human beings are connected to nature because they correspond with the patterns of heaven and earth, and resonate with the cycles and movements in the environment.

Aside from corresponding patterns, it is also believed that all in the cosmos are composed of and function by the shared life force called qi. Health, whether it is human health or environmental health (in Chinese terms, good fengshui (2)), is qualified by unobstructed and balanced flow of qi.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), a medical system developed with such cosmology as its backdrop, understands the human body and the nature as not only interconnected but also synchronized. (3) In California, where ecological discussions on nature preservation and sustainable living are often informed by multicultural sensitivities and pluralistic spiritual understandings, practitioners of TCM find themselves inevitably contributing to the popular discourse as healers who mediate between Chinese and American cultural systems. Based on ethnographic research in the San Francisco Bay Area (4) (hereafter referred to as the Bay Area), this essay will explore how these practitioners participate in the ecological discourse through their clinical practices and teaching, thereby contributing to the contemporary spiritual discourse in California. (Practitioners in this essay are identified by pseudonyms.)

Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine in the Bay area

In the past few decades, TCM has become one of the leading alternative medical systems in the United States. In the year of 2001 alone, 2.1 million adults in the United States used acupuncture treatments. (5) California was one of the first states to regulate TCM practitioners, who were, and still are, licensed as acupuncturists. In 1972, the state of California started regulating the practice of acupuncture under the supervision of biomedical physicians; by 1978, acupuncturists in California were already established as primary care providers (who require neither supervision nor referral by biomedical physicians). (6) Approximately half of all licensed acupuncturists in the United States currently practice in California. (7) By May 2009, a total of 13,110 acupuncture licenses had been issued in California, more than doubled the count of 6,300 licenses in 2000. (8) Approximately one-fifth of all licensed acupuncturists in California are currently practicing in the San Francisco Bay Area. According to a survey I conducted in 2006 on TCM practitioners across California, the profession consisted of 41% Caucasian American, 44% Chinese American, 10% other Asian Americans, and a small percentage of mixed and other ethnics; as I conducted fieldwork in the Bay Area, I found the ethnic demographic of TCM practitioners similarly composed. (9)

Legally regulated by the state, and where more than half of the licensed practitioners are non-Chinese ethnics and largely American (Caucasian American), TCM provides services largely in the American mainstream. In the context of United States, within the predominantly biomedical framework, TCM is a complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) that originated from China. Contrasted with biomedicine as the "conventional" medicine, (10) the CAMs are positioned on the periphery and are marginal to the standards and values of Western biomedicine.

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