Traditional medicine faces challenge from upstart Western ideas
It's a proud tradition dating back thousands of years, that's in danger of being supplanted by an arrogant young upstart that muscled its way in just a couple of hundred years ago.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has suffered many affronts at the hands of the proponents of Western medicine, yet the latest attack has really got people's blood pumping.
Celebrity blogger Ning Fanggang, a Beijing-based doctor practising Western medicine, is the latest public figure to criticise TCM as a pseudo-science that borders on the fraudulent.
His offer of 50,000 yuan (HK$63,200) to any TCM doctor who can correctly tell if a woman is pregnant, in at least 80 per cent of cases, merely by holding her pulse appears to have hit a nerve with clinical precision.
Pulse-touching is one of the basic diagnostic steps in traditional medicine.
Two months into his challenge, Ning and his supporters have already claimed victory, as not a single TCM doctor has tried to claim the prize. Ning says this is because no-one can prove that TCM works. But TCM doctors say his challenge is pointless.
Professor Fu Linchun, from Guangzhou University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, pointed out that traditional-medicine doctors made diagnoses through various steps, including seeing, smelling, asking and touching.
"So it's not right to leave out the other three parts of the diagnostic process," he said. "What's more, it's impossible to tell that a woman has a different pulse if she has been pregnant for only a few days."
Dr Qi Guangchong, from the Yueyang Hospital of Integrated Traditional Chinese and Western Medicine, said people were suspicious of traditional medicine because they did not fully understand it. Many Western doctors actually supported the approach, he said.
The Guangzhou Daily has reported that Dr Zhong Nanshan, a leading figure during the Sars epidemic in 2003, was among those who had jumped to the defence of Chinese medicine.
Zhong, a respiratory specialist trained in Western medicine, said it was wrong to claim that TCM was unscientific. "I think the TCM doctrines that illness should be treated in a holistic manner and that doctors should try to prevent illnesses can indeed be scientific," he said.
"In TCM theory, organs of our body are connected with each other and doctors should treat diseases by regarding the person as a whole [rather than checking only a specific part of the body]. "These are the TCM ideas that I think highly of."
Zhong gave the example of a cancerous tumour. Western medicine tended to focus on killing or removing the tumour tissue, he said, but in many cases this still would not prevent the patient from dying. But a TCM specialist might advise the patient try to live with the tumour, and focus their efforts on improving their quality of life instead. In some cases, Western doctors were now coming round to a similar approach, he said.
"TCM proposes supporting the growth of positive energy inside our body in order to conquer evil energy," he said. "Tumour doctors around the world are changing their goals [and advocating that patients learn to live with tumours]."
Zhong said that while Western medicine had advantages in dealing with acute or serious illnesses, such as fevers caused by bacteria, TCM was more effective at improving patients' immune systems and treating chronic diseases like diabetes.
While it may be wrong to interpret Western medicine and TCM as mutually exclusive approaches, TCM proponents say the constant negativity is starting to affect students.
Fu said that given the hostile atmosphere, students majoring in TCM often questioned what they were learning. He said their minds were easily "captured" by Western medicine.
"This is the inevitable outcome of a teaching over the past few decades that includes a hefty amount of Western medicine knowledge," said Dr Liu Lihong, from Guangxi Traditional Chinese Medical University.
"Among the graduates from TCM universities, there are very few who can truly adopt the thought, spirit and method of TCM to solve problems."
Qi said that when he attended TCM college three decades ago, 30 per cent of classes were on Western medicine, such as anatomy and pharmacology. The proportion had risen to 50 per cent in recent years, he said.
Despite the bad publicity surrounding TCM, the Chinese constitution supports it, stipulating: "Our country develops modern medicine and our country's traditional medicine."
Last month, the government gave further backing by holding a ceremony honouring 29 "state TCM masters". At the ceremony, Vice-Premier Liu Yandong said there should be "top-level designs" for the development of traditional medicine.
"We should reflect and our education should be adjusted," Liu said. "After all, traditional medicine is not a part of modern science. It has its own character and we should adhere to it in teaching and developing it."