Traditional Chinese Medicine

collection of herbs


Chinese medicines have served Chinese people for thousands of years.  It is the central part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The Chinese call it Zhong Yao (中药),  Chinese herbal medicine. Chinese medicine is often confused with Zhong Yi (中医) — TCM, a system of diagnosis and treatment.


TCM theories about syndrome diagnosis and treatment are mainly from the practice of herbs. Ancient doctors explained their herbal effectiveness with ancient philosophies, yin yang, qi and five elements. They used syndrome patterns to bridge herbs and symptoms. TCM theories developed along with the increase of syndrome patterns found in the clinic.   


In the past decade, all universities in China simplified their English names from Tradition Chinese medicine to Chinese medicine. In BC, the regulatory body still uses traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). So now, Chinese medicine has two meanings. One refers to traditional Chinese medicine (in contrast with Western medicine); the other means Chinese herbal medicine or Chinese herbs.


Empirical Medical System

In its long history in China, Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners use herbs and acupuncture to fight all kinds of diseases. They made records of their successful experiences and found answers to why they could cure diseases in theories of Chinese philosophies. 


The whole medical system, physiology, pathology, etiology, diagnosis, prevention and treatment, is philosophical. It is not unwise to say that TCM is an outcome of therapeutic experiments directly on our human body instead of on white rats, so its safety had been proved far before establishing the Western medical system.


Based on Ancient Philosophies

There are three sets of ancient Chinese philosophies applied to traditional Chinese medicine. They are Qi (气), Yin Yang (阴阳), and Five Elements (五行). They categorize the natural world and our human being body into one, two and five, respectively.


Everything is qi; everything consists of qi, life comes from qi, and life disappears in a rare form of qi. The environment in the sky is called Tian Qi (sky qi), and in the woods or at the beach or above the desert is called Di Qi (earth qi). 


 When one gets angry, his liver qi will gush out; when one wins the lottery, his heart qi will become pleasant; when water in a pot above a stove gets bubbling, qi (steam) will find its way out. Qi is a word in Chinese people’s daily life.


The forms of qi are countless but can fall into two, yin qi, and yang qi simplified as yin and yang. Yin Yang philosophers believe that life comes from the movement or interaction of Yin and Yang. Yin represents cooling, quiet, downward, soft, hiding, female, etc., while Yang refers to warming, noisy, upward, hard, showing, male, etc. Yin and Yang are opposite to each other and also rely on each other. The colourful life in this dynamic world comes from the interaction of Yin and Yang.


This looks pretty abstract and hard to be understood, but take computer language as an example; things would become very straightforward. The primary computer calculating units is 1 and 0. Lining up these two symbols in different order and lengths could create everything our modern desktop can do.


Qi or yin qi and yang qi could fall into five categories, metal, mood, water, fire and earth. There are five types of personalities, five yin internal organs, five yang internal organs, five tastes, five kinds of bodily fluid, five seasons, five colours, five body orifices, five special acupoints below elbows and knees, etc.


So these three sets of ancient Chinese wisdom are mixed to understand body structure and function, herbs properties, acupoints relations, etc. In contrast with Western medicine, which sits on modern science (chemistry, biology, physics, etc.), traditional Chinese medicine, an empirical medicine, is submerged in ancient Chinese philosophies.


Five Internal Organs

In traditional Chinese medicine, “anatomy,” the center of the body is the five Zang (internal) organs. These five Zang organs are the heart, lung, liver, spleen and kidney. They are superior to six fu organs(small intestine, large intestine, gall bladder, stomach, and urinary bladder) and govern five sense organs (tongue, nose, eyes, mouth, and ears), respectively. These five Zang organs also control five body parts (blood vessels, skin/pores, tendons/facias, muscles, and bone).


The body has qi, blood, body fluid, and essence to maintain its life. All body parts rely on these essentials. Some channels and collaterals conduct these materials away from the five Zang organs. The word “Zang” means hiding or staying in the deeper part of the body.


Take several elements as examples. In the wood category in our body, there are the liver, gall bladder, tendons, nails, and eyes; in the earth group; there are the spleen, stomach, four limb muscles, lips, and mouth; in the fire category, their heart, small intestine, blood vessels, face, tongue. So in this way, the five-element theory binds the body parts from the internal to the external highly efficiently.



Traditional Chinese medicine prioritizes etiology or understanding of what causes an illness. Various kinds of pathological factors, externally and internally, cause different diseases.


 The external factors are six climatic factors (wind, cold, shu, heat, dryness, dampness), and the internal ones are seven emotions (anger, joy, grief, worry, pensiveness, fear, fright). There are others: imbalance of diet, mental and physical activity, trauma, insect/animal bite, etc. 

These factors cause yin-yang imbalance, qi and blood disorder, and dysfunction of internal organs.



Syndrome (zheng, 证) is the soul in the TCM system. TCM relies on the syndrome.


differentiation to understand the underlying causes, guide its treatment, and avoid side effects from herbal medicine. The syndrome is a comprehensive concept of the cause of a disorder, heat or cold type of disease, excess type of deficiency type, and which area or site is involved. 


There are about seven or eight modules of syndrome differentiation in the TCM diagnosis textbook. Each has its clinical preference for certain kinds of disorders. Syndrome comes from analyzing a group of the relevant symptoms and signs. TCM collects these symptoms and signs through inspection (viewing, wang, 望), smelling and listening (wen, 闻), inquiry (wen, 问), and palpation (qie, 切) 


Treatment and Prevention

In the TCM treatment toolbox, herbal medicine is the most popular tool used to treat most disorders in eastern countries. The second tool is acupuncture; it includes cupping, moxa, etc. The third include is tui na (massage). The rest tools are Shi Liao (diet therapy), qi gong (meditation), Tai Ji Quang (Tai Ji marshal art), etc. 


The goal of TCM treatment is to restore the balance of yin and yang and restore the harmony of qi, blood and body fluid. It emphasizes customized treatment for different individuals and stresses disease prevention through avoiding Xie qi (pathogen) and building up zheng qi (resistance).

taking pulse by tcm doctor

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