Newspaper article

The 'Sense and Nonsense' (and Big Business) of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Newspaper article

The 'Sense and Nonsense' (and Big Business) of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Article excerpt

The British digital magazine Aeon has published a long and fascinating article by Beijing-based journalist James Palmer ("The Death of Mao") on "the odd, dangerous mix of sense and nonsense" that is traditional Chinese medicine.

In the article, Palmer pulls back the curtain on this often romanticized approach to treating illness, and exposes it for what it is: a "beautiful and intricate" but unscientific and thus potentially dangerous set of medical theories and practices. But even more interesting is his description of the history of how and why Chinese authorities have allowed traditional medicine to flourish side-by-side with modern "Western" medicine.

As Palmer notes (with British spellings), "The institutionalization of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) was not inevitable. It arose out of China's damaged encounters with the West, out of the ideological struggles of the 1930s, and the political needs of the early People's Republic. And like most traditions, from kilts to Christmas trees, it's a lot younger than people think."

It's also big business. "In modern China," writes Palmer, "traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is not the realm of private enthusiasts, spiritual advisers or folk healers. It's been institutionalized, incorporated into the state medical system, given full backing in universities, and is administered by the state. In 2012, TCM institutes and firms received an extra $1 billion in government money, outside the regular budget. TCM as a whole is a $60 billion dollar industry in mainland China and Hong Kong."

A pushback against skeptics

Here are some other excerpts and insights from the article:

* "In pharmacies, TCM prescriptions are jumbled on the shelves alongside conventional drugs. Staff often see little difference between prescribing one or the other and don't tell patients whether they're receiving TCM or conventional treatment."

* Chinese scientists and physicians who publicly challenge the role of TCM in modern medical practice often pay a high professional price for their opposition. One outspoken TCM skeptic, a professor of medical history, circulated an unsuccessful petition to remove TCM from government-run medical institutions -- and was promptly accused by officials and others of being "ignorant." "Since then," the professor told Palmer, "I have borne a lot of pressure from the government, from the university, and from the existing TCM institutions. I can't publish my papers freely; I'm blocked from the normal promotions and salary raises; and I can't even always lecture to my students."

* "TCM's claims of being 'natural' are also highly appealing in [a] country where everything from dumpings to baby milk to river water can be toxic. Talking to an acupuncture student, I suggested that science could identify the chemicals in herbal medicines. 'Herbs don't have chemicals!' she protested sharply. 'Chemicals are from factories!'"

* "For decades, erectile dysfunction made up a significant proportion of the TCM market, both in China and overseas. But with Viagra's entry into the Chinese market in the early 2000s, the use of TCM has shrunk rapidly. …

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