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In Part 1 we explored the cultural differences, Individual vs Group-Identity. Lets now explore how this is connected to our ideas of science and medicine.

Analytical vs Relational Science

Biomedicine is culturally rooted on the ideas of ‘individualism’. The Western world developed an analytical science that tried to understand things by isolating and identifying their constituent elements.

Biomedical-Analytical Approach:

  1. The human body is isolated and studied. It is separated into systems (digestive, immune, respiratory etc) with their own specialists.
  2. Disease is seen as a random or genetically determined dysfunctional processes in individual organs or systems (defined by biomedicine).
  3. Treatment is generally structured around a disease label. The prescribed drug, physical intervention or advice has an action to stop or block function on that physical part of the body. In most cases, the goal is to control, block, stop or even kill that part of the body that is considered dysfunctional in an attempt to normalize body function.
  4. The focus is on influencing the parts to affect the whole.
  5. Biomedicine believes the things we can touch, feel and measure are primary, if not exclusive.
  6. The physician is like a hunter that tracks down dysfunction/disease and attempts to eliminates it to improve health.

Eastern medicine is culturally rooted in ‘group-identity’. China has adopted a relational science, where you understand the nature of things by looking at how they behave related to other things.

Eastern-Relational Approach:

  1. It is believed that humans are a small part of a much larger natural order. The human body is considered a reflection of nature. The body is understood as organ systems and meridians that are influenced by concurrent levels of experience – physical, emotional and spiritual.
  2. Disease is linked to a systemic (pattern) imbalance. Patterns are based on an assumption that all living systems are seeking wholeness, balance and health.
  3. Treatment is generally structured around a pattern label. Acupuncture, herbal medicine or bodywork is employed to harmonize the pattern. For example if there is heat, the goal is to clear heat. The goal is to provide support to innate homeostatic intelligence.
  4. The focus is on influencing the whole to affect the parts.
  5. Chinese medicine believes the things we can touch, feel and measure are secondary to those things we cannot touch, feel and measure.
  6. The physician is like a gardener looking, listening, sensing, and attempts to change the environment and pattern to influence health.

The philosophical question that comes to mind: Is it more about the bricks, or more about the mortar? Is it more about the atoms, or more about the order? How do atoms form molecules, molecules form cells, cells form organs and organs create consciousness; Is consciousness more about the atoms or more about the order?

From the Daoist classics, this is what 老子 Lǎozǐ says:

Thirty spokes surround the hub:

In their nothingness consists the carriage’s effectiveness.

One hollows the clay and shapes it into pots:

In its nothingness consists the pot’s effectiveness.

One cuts out doors and windows to make the chamber:

In their nothingness consists the chamber’s effectiveness. 

Therefore: What exists serves for possession. 

What does not exist serves for effectiveness. 

道德经 Dào Dé Jīng – 4th Century BCE – chapter 11 – Richard Wilhelm Edition

Now, lets see how both these ideas can respect each other, work together to create a greater whole. Yin and yang cannot exist without each other, what is: summer without winter; the day without night; fire without water: masculinity without femininity? There is always value in the other end of the spectrum.

Original yin-yang theory, derived from the observation of nature, is based on the five aspects of yin-yang relationship:

  1. Opposition – All things have yin and yang aspects
  2. Interdependence – yin and yang cannot exist without each other
  3. Inter-consuming-supporting – yin and yang are in a constant state of change for preserving the balance
  4. Inter-transforming – yin and yang can change into one another
  5. Infinite divisibility – yin and yang aspect can be further divided into yin and yang 

The ‘yang-Biomedicine’ and the ‘yin Chinese medicine’. My belief is that we are working toward the emergence of a comprehensive system of healthcare that uses the strengths of both Western and Eastern medicine.

The most important aspect of this alliance is that the strength of the yang is the weakness of the yin, and the strength of the yin is the weakness of the yang. For example, Biomedicine is strong in treatment, operations and emergency care. Chinese medicine is not. Chinese medicine is strong in prevention, life-style functional diseases, biomedicine is not. They come from opposite extreme ends of a viewing spectrum, so it is my belief that their synergy is a natural occurrence that takes two parts and makes a whole. Just like summer and winter; day and night; fire and water; the masculine and the feminine.

My feeling is that for an increasingly well-educated, well-informed and mature society, we need to give people quality information, highlight choice and responsibility and then give respect for their decision. This is less about choosing sides, and more about understanding we can accept all approaches, identifying their inherent strengths, as well as their weaknesses. It is perfectly ok to use both systems.

Health is universal, and it is my hope that this article assists people deepen their understanding, make informed choices within an increasingly complex and comprehensive health care system.

Alex Tan

Alex Tan L.Ac is a licensed Acupuncturist. After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China. A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex's bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives. He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients. Click here for more about Alex.