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  • Writer's pictureCatherine

TCM - What Lies In A Name?

Updated: Oct 30, 2020

Chinese Medicine is often known as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Frankly, I'm not sure I like this name these days as it doesn't seem to capture the full spectrum of what Chinese Medicine means.

If one were to think of tradition as something with a long history, then yes this word would be right. The knowledge in Chinese Medicine did not bubble out of nowhere. It was accumulated over thousands of years by many people observing nature, how humans function and how we react to the world we live in. Thousands of years is a long time to study, experiment, make mistakes and refine anything.

Yet, I've noticed that the word "traditional" also seems to invoke a dated sense of ancient that insinuates irrelevance to current times for some people.

That isn't true.

People in the past lived on this same globe like we do now. They too faced the same pressures of providing for family, meeting societal expectations and managing personal responsibilities. They also experienced social and political conflict. The difference lies in the technologies that existed then versus now, the type of jobs people worked in and our lifestyles. People in the past also had a much closer relationship with nature than the average modern person. We have technologies that allow us to do things that weren't possible before. They had skills to produce things we still can't replicate today.

While some things might differ, we are still the same human race. Being an area of study that relies heavily on practical clinical application, Chinese Medicine continues to be relevant. Moreover, Chinese Medicine has continued to be studied, debated and evolve all this time. While certain things have to be modified for current settings, information stored in books from thousands of years ago continue to be of value today.

Hence, if "traditional" means outdated, then I wouldn't think it appropriate to use this word in front of Chinese Medicine.

Another thing that is lost in translation is the word 中. Chinese Medicine in Chinese is written as 中医. 中 carries several meanings. In the case of Chinese Medicine, 中 is translated to the word 'Chinese'. This isn't wrong because the origin is from China but it's easy to forget that China isn't homogeneous. There are multiple languages and cultures in China. China as we know it today didn't always exist the same way over the past few millennia. Chinese Medicine includes influences and herbs from from various parts of this huge country. Some herbs, such as saffron, originate from outside China. Hence, if one were to associate 中医 with being only Chinese or Han Chinese, it wouldn't be fully accurate.

Chinese words often carry multiple meanings for the same word. 中 can also mean middle, central and neutral. This captures an important aspect of the spirit of Chinese Medicine. 中医里的“中”包含了中庸之道的精神. Balance, harmony and taking the middle path lie at the heart of Chinese Medicine. More than treating of specific ailments, Chinese Medicine believes that ailments arise from a state of imbalance. Therefore, good health comes from bringing the body and mind back to a state of balance. In my personal opinion, this is a far more important meaning to the word 中 in this context.

The great thing about translation is that it makes information available to more people from different countries and cultures. The unfortunate thing is that information can't always be conveyed fully in another language. In the case of Chinese Medicine, the name Traditional Chinese Medicine isn't wrong, but it does not fully express what Chinese Medicine is. It is even more unfortunate when this is politicized.

Just as information can be lost in translation, it can be hard to understand Chinese Medicine when viewed through the lens of mainstream medicine. One of my teachers often emphasized that in order to understand Chinese Medicine, one has to understand the context within which it exists. By putting on different lenses, one will see another perspective to the world as well as our health.

Hence dear reader, I hope that when you see the word "Traditional Chinese Medicine" in future, you will also wear the lens of knowing that this name presents one aspect but not all of what 中医 encompasses.

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