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Energy and balance in the body

Acupuncture training model, China, 1725-1730

Acupuncture training model, China, 1725-1730

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In many medical traditions, the body is understood in terms of energy flow. Anatomy and surgery still have a role in these traditions, but muscles, bones and ligaments are not as central to the way the body is understood. In fact, the European tradition of anatomy is unusual in its emphasis on muscles (as some historians have pointed out, muscles are not highly visible on most individuals). In other medical traditions, whether AfricanAyurvedic or Unani Tibb, the emphasis is on maintaining or restoring balance in the body as a whole. Balance is not just important within the body. These traditions also emphasise the need to be in harmony with one’s environment. This may mean being in tune with the seasons and changes in climate, or with your family and community.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

Greek humoral theory has influenced many of these traditions. However, TCM has a different model of balance in the body. TCM started in China more than two thousand years ago, and has since spread to almost every corner of the world. In TCM health is maintained by ensuring balance in the body and beyond. The life force thought to animate the body is chi or qi. This flows through channels, or meridians, and is divided into Yin and Yang, two opposing yet complementary forces.Yin and Yang are in a fluid relation to each other, and act through the wu hsing or five agents (wood, fire, earth, metal, water) to bring about change, whether in the environment or the individual.

The body as a whole


An imbalance or blockage of Yin and Yang in the body is believed to cause disease. Chinese doctors use observation of the pulse, tongue and skin, as well as discussion with the patient, to make their diagnosis. They use a functional approach to the body, based on the idea that no single part can be understood except in its relation to the whole. A symptom is not traced back to a cause (as it would be in a model of disease based on germ theory), but seen as part of a larger situation. Every patient is given an individualised treatment, based on the specific needs of his or her body. This may include acupuncture, moxibustion, herbal remedies and specific exercises.

Different approaches to curing people

Since the 1900s, TCM has been formalised in a modern institutional form. It is practised both as an independent tradition, and in conjunction with biomedical and other forms of medicine. While the models of the body found in TCM and biomedicine do not always correspond, many people now seek hybrid treatments, picking and choosing from one tradition or the other depending on their condition.

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Related links

External links:


J Farquar, Knowing Practice, The Clinical Encounter of Chinese Medicine (Bolder CO: Westview Press, 1994)

D Hoizey and M J Hoizey, A History of Chinese Medicine (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1988)

T J Kaptchuk, The Web That Has No Weaver (Chicago: Contemporary Books, revised edition, 2000)

S Kuriyama, The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine (New York: Zone Books, 2002)

J Needham, Science and Civilisation in China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

V Scheid, Chinese Medicine in Contemporary China: Plurality and Synthesis (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2002)

P U Unshuld, Medicine in China. Historical Artifacts and Images (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2000)

P U Unshuld, Medicine in China. A History of Ideas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)

P U Unschuld, `Traditional Chinese Medicine: Some Historical and Epistemological Reflections', Social Science and Medicine, 24 (1987), pp 1023-29


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