The History of Chinese Medicine During the Global Health Crisis

By Dr. Eric Karchmer, PhD, MD (China), LAc /

The History of Chinese Medicine During the Global Health Crisis

Dr. Eric Karchmer, Phd, MD (China) is a Licensed Acupuncturist, Chief Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine at DAO Labs, and a current Fulbright Scholar in Taiwan studying the application of Chinese Medicine in today's society.  During his time abroad, he provides various perspectives on Traditional Chinese Medicine for The Way. 

Can Traditional Chinese Medicine offer solutions to the global health situation? Will it be helpful with on-going and emerging variants? Over the past year and a half, I have had the opportunity to research this question both in China (in collaboration with colleagues based in China) and in Taiwan, where I have been conducting research for the last nine months. The answer from doctors in both countries is an unequivocal “Yes.”

 A Silver Lining of the Last 20 Months

The contributions of Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors in both China and Taiwan are one of the silver linings of the pandemic. As I discuss in my forthcoming book, Prescriptions for Virtuosity: The Postcolonial Struggle of Chinese Medicine, which will be published by Fordham University Press in the spring 2022, the participation of Chinese medicine doctors in a global health crisis is a historical first in modern Chinese society.

Why were doctors of Chinese medicine not involved in earlier public health work? The answer is complicated but essentially comes down to one thing: the history of imperialism in both countries.

Some Historical Background

By the late 19th century, the Qing dynasty, China’s last imperial dynasty, was already two hundred and fifty years old and well past the height of its power and influence. European imperial powers had already established numerous “treaty ports” and spheres of influence in China, where the Qing dynasty has little to no political authority.

In 1895, the biggest blow to the political power of the Qing came from a surprising new adversary, a rapidly modernizing Japan. In the War of 1895, Qing forces were pushed out of the Korean peninsula. Korea had been an independent kingdom, but was a tributary state to the Qing, meaning that they pledged political support to the Qing emperor. As a result of this war, the island of Taiwan was also seized by Japan, becoming one of its first colonies. 

Western Medicine Makes its Debut in Asia

The military defeat by the Japanese in 1895 was a watershed moment for Chinese intellectuals and political elites. Japan had once been a faraway tributary state, barely registering on the radar of Chinese scholars and certainly not a concern for Qing military leaders, who always feared the rise of political upstarts in central Asia.

Japan’s rapid modernization included a strong embrace of Western medicine, even though it had an extremely rich history of Kampo medicine, derived from the Chinese medicine classics. By the last 19th century, Kampo medicine was rapidly declining in Japan because only doctors of Western medicine could become licensed practitioners under the Japanese Meiji government.

The impact of these policies had important ramifications for China and Taiwan. Under Japanese colonial rule, there was a rapid promotion of the Western medicine profession in Taiwan, which soon became the most prestigious form of medical practice on the island and leading players in Taiwan’s public health efforts. In mainland China, classical Chinese forms of scholarship, embodied by the Confucian canon but including Chinese medicine, suffered an immense loss of prestige as a result.

Although change came slowly to China, the political influence of China’s very small number of Western medicine doctors was enormous relative to their size. As I show in Prescriptions for Virtuosity, the Western medicine profession finally became the dominant form of medical practice in China in the 1950s, forever altering the status of Chinese medicine in China. Indeed, it was the support of the Chinese Communist Party, albeit tentative and ambivalent, that allowed Chinese medicine profession to survive in the face of passionate opposition from Western medicine professionals. 

How does this history relate to the current health crisis? As I show in my book, Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors were ultimately prevented by political authorities in both China and Taiwan from treating acute, infectious diseases. Although there are excellent therapies for treating a wide range of epidemic diseases within Chinese medicine, most practitioners no longer had clinical training in how to handle these illnesses by the late 20th century.

Deng Tietao, one of the great doctors of the 20th century, told me in an interview that the SARS outbreak of 2003, was a breakthrough for younger doctors. Some of them ended up on the clinical frontlines of that outbreak through happenstance. In their efforts to control a disease that had no effective biomedical therapies, they began to realize that they were getting encouraging results through Traditional Chinese Medicine therapies. The publications and reports that emerged in the aftermath of the SARS outbreak led to a greater openness of political authorities in both China and Taiwan and a willingness to allow a much more robust response to the current health situation by Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors.

The information in this article is meant for informational purposes only and is not meant to be a substitute for medical advice or care. 

Dr. Eric Karchmer is a practicing Chinese medical doctor, medical anthropologist, and co-founder and Chief Doctor of Chinese Medicine for DAO Labs. From 1995-2000, Eric studied at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine and today is both a licensed acupuncturist and professor at Appalachian State University. Eric can be reached at drkarchmer@mydaolabs.com.

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