Back in Time: The Decline and Crisis of Natural Medicine in Modern China
The Health Problems of China and a Divergence from Chinese Medicine
In the first half of the 20th century, the health of the Chinese population suffered greatly. Epidemics were rampant and diseases such as cholera, plague, smallpox, black fever, diphtheria, scarlet fever, malaria, bilharzia and tuberculosis caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. People were further plagued with famines and unremitting starvation.
The famous cartoon features - Sanmao (literal translation: “Three Hairs”), in which the sanitary conditions of early modern China are described.
Perhaps it was as a result of these horrific conditions, combined with the changing political climate, that more emphasis was centered on public hygiene and government leaders began to show a preference for Western medicine over Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)1. More regulations for medical education were put in place and an increase in health centers staffed by Western and Japanese doctors was seen together with a surge in the numbers of professional medical associations and journals.
People associate bad sanitation with the status quo of "old China", which lumped Traditional Chinese Medicine with other despised aspects that they see in their own culture. On the other hand, they associate clean sanitation with Western culture, and considered everything in the Western world more advanced than their obsolete traditions, leading them to worship much more expensive Western Medicine.
To some extent, Chinese medicine became a symbol of the old backward ways of doing things to those who wished to modernize China. Wang Daxie, who was the Minister of Education in Sun Yat Sen's government, was one of the first officials to call for the abolition of Chinese medicine. Although he was not successful in this, the new nationalist Kuomingtang government adopted similar views about Chinese medicine. A proposal entitled "A Case for the Abolishment of the Old Medicine to Thoroughly Eliminate Public Health Obstacles," written by Yu Ai and Wang Qizang, who knew nothing about traditional Chinese medicine, suggested that important Chinese medicine principles, such as the yin yang theory and the five phases (more commonly translated in the English world as “five elements”), were not based on reality and further intimated that Chinese medicine was fraudulent. The proposal, which was passed by the Central Ministry of Health in 1929, severely limited the sharing, education and practice of Chinese medicine. It also prohibited anyone from establishing Chinese medicine schools, so that the spread of "unscientific" information could be controlled.
A sample Chinese medicine advertisement: The advertisement boasts of 32 secret prescriptions from famous physicians of past & present to cure 32 ailments.
Even Mao Zedong, who was leading his Red Army in the Yan’an area at the time, mirrored the Nationalist government sentiments. Both his army and the surrounding population were experiencing a shortage of food, shelter and clothing, and faced additional problems of illness due to poor hygiene and sanitation. This prompted him to instruct his army in 1942 to uproot all "shamanic beliefs and superstitions" and form model public health villages. Proper hygiene and sanitation remained of prime concern to him and like his nationalist counterparts he thought Chinese medicine doctors were no better than "circus entertainers, snake oil salesman or street hawkers."
Despite all the negative sentiment about Chinese medicine during this period, its practice was impossible to eradicate at that time, due to the strong reliance and need for inexpensive yet highly effective treatments of the common folks. Yu Ai and Wan Qizang's proposal also sparked heavy protest from the Chinese medicine communities. In March 1929, members of 132 TCM associations congregated in Shanghai and the National Union of Associations for Chinese Medicine was formed. From that day forward, March 17th was declared the re-birth or birthday of Chinese medicine.
Happy Chinese Medicine Day to all Natural Medicine practitioners and users around the world!
*Chinese medicine, the natural medicine that has been in practice since no later than 2200 BC in ancient China, loses its status as the " one and only medicine": A subtle shift in terminology reinforced this thinking. As Western medicine became more accepted, Chinese medicine was no longer referred to as "yixue," which meant "(the one and only) medicine." Instead, it was relegated to the ordinary name of "zhongyi" or Chinese medicine, which distinguished it from "xiyi" or Western medicine.
Modified from and credits: Shen-Nong Limited.