TCM gets a foreign look
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is no longer alien to people outside China, with acupuncture and massage now seen as sound alternatives to chemical treatment.
But it has taken more than a century for people in the West to get to grips with TCM and overcome their misconceptions.
In contrast, people in Tanzania began embracing TCM 30 years ago and today, this branch of medicine remains popular.
The history of TCM's spread into foreign countries offers a fresh perspective into the modernization of the medicine, researchers pointed out at the 22th International Congress on the History of Science held last week in Beijing.
Linda Barnes, associate professor of medical anthropology at Boston University, explores in her forthcoming book "Needles, Herbs, Gods, and Ghosts China, Healing and the West to 1848" how Chinese medical knowledge came to the West stumbling over misunderstanding after misunderstanding.
While Westerners, especially those in the medical profession, have tried to analyze TCM from the perspective of Western medicine, Tanzanians began to use TCM out of medical necessity.
Elizabeth Hsu from Oxford University found in her studies in Tanzania that TCM was quite popular in the African country.
Unlike its image, even in China, as slow treatment for chronic diseases, TCM is considered fast, efficient, inexpensive and powerful medicine in Tanzania.
Hsu wanted to find out why.
In the 1960s and 1970s, China helped Tanzania and Zambia build the Tanzania-Zambia Railway. Chinese medical teams, with dozens of TCM doctors, worked at the railway construction sites. They offered low-cost and often free treatment to locals, who suffered from a poor medical infrastructure.
TCM was therefore warmly welcomed by Tanzanians in rural areas, and this zeal has not faded to this day, even though the number of Chinese TCM doctors sent by the government to the country dwindled from 30 a year in the 1970s to two a year in the late 1990s.
Towards the end of the 1990s, the Chinese doctors sent by the government were replaced by private Chinese practitioners and Tanzanians trained by Chinese medical teams.
But unlike the official Chinese TCM doctors, this new batch did not stick to traditional Chinese practices.
Instead, they used chemicals or injections in treating diseases, Hsu said.
However, the inefficient and few State-run hospitals in the African nation gave these new TCM doctors, Chinese or not, greater elbowroom in attracting patients in rural areas.
The easier access to this new form of hybrid TCM helped form the image of the medicine being an effective way of treating local ailments.
In Germany, TCM has also been adapted to local conditions.
Iven Tao from the Institute of Chinese Studies at the University of Kiel said that TCM was welcomed in Germany and enjoyed fewer regulations compared to other Western European countries.
But it is not TCM in its purest sense, rather a biomedical practice adopted by local physicians and used as a supplement to traditional European remedies.
Since the 1970s, TCM diagnoses and treatment, such as feeling the pulse or acupuncture, have been detached from their original contexts and used in an experimental way in Germany, Tao said.
"TCM modernization has been pursued in China for many years, but when we look at the history of TCM outside China, many useful experiences can be learnt," Tao said.
(China Daily 08/03/2005 page13)
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