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How Chinese Traditions Work

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Dating back about two millennia to the Han Dynasty, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has endured to modern times as a holistic and multi-faceted approach to treating illness. It primarily has to do with the Chinese belief that the human body is a microcosm of the same forces at work in nature. The theory states that just as nature is interconnected, so is the human body, with the organs being interdependent and often affecting each other. So treatment often addresses such interrelationships.

Historically, according to the TCM approach, illness was not believed to be caused by germs and viruses, but rather an imbalance and disharmony of forces in the human body. In this way, TCM also incorporates the yin-yang theory of balance. The concept of qi, which is the flow of energy or life force that permeates all living things, also plays an important part in this balance. Qi fluctuates and flows, and if it gets blocked, this will promote imbalance and sickness. Two different but respected diagnostic theories include the eight principles (Interior/Exterior, Cold/Hot, Deficiency/Excess, Yin/Yang) and the five elements (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water). Each theory can be used to help understand a particular illness. The eight principles help pinpoint a particular bodily imbalance of qi. The five elements, on the other hand, represent phases of qi energy. Fire represents a phase where activity is peaked about to decline, while water represents the opposite. Wood represents growing of activity, and metal represents decreasing. Earth, however, is neutral [source: Holland].

The most well-known methods of TCM treatments are herbal remedies and acupuncture. The study of the effects of herbs dates back to ancient times and has always been central to TCM. Acupuncture is a practice of placing needles in the skin to seek to open blockage of qi in the body. Researchers believe this practice dates back to ancient times when the Chinese would use sharp stone to puncture abscesses to let blood and pus out [source: Jiuzhang].

Another common treatment is moxibustion, which is the burning of mugwort (or another dried herb) near or actually on the skin. Moxibustion is often performed in conjunction with acupuncture and is also meant to restore the flow of qi. Cupping is a treatment involving placing a warmed cup on the skin to create a suction. Other treatments include massage, tai chi and dietary therapy, among others.

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