Chinese Medicine Demystified (Part I): A Case of Mistaken Identity


Guest Blog Series from Chris Kresser, LAc


I’m sure you’re at least somewhat familiar with Chinese medicine and acupuncture by now.  It’s received a lot of media coverage over the last decade, and insurance companies are now covering it in many states. But even though an increasing number of people are using acupuncture to address their health problems, most still don’t understand how Chinese medicine works.

We’ve been told that Chinese medicine involves mysterious energy called “qi” circulating through invisible “meridians” in the body.  When the flow of qi through our meridians becomes blocked, illness results.  The purpose of acupuncture and other Chinese medical therapies (like herbal medicine and qi gong) is to promote the proper flow of qi through the meridians, thus restoring health.  Sound familiar?

If you’ve ever been to an acupuncturist in the west, I’m sure you’ve received some version of this explanation. After all, this is what they teach in acupuncture school. I know this because I’m in my final semester of studying Chinese medicine, and this is the explanation in our textbooks.

Understandably, these fundamental concepts of Chinese medicine have been difficult for western patients and doctors to accept.  If you sit a doctor down who has had ten years of post-graduate medical training and tell him that an unidentified energy called qi flowing through imaginary meridians is the key to health and disease, he’s going to look at you like you’re crazy.  And I don’t blame him.

What if I told you that nearly everything we’ve been taught in the West about how Chinese medicine works isn’t accurate?  What if I told you that Chinese medicine isn’t a woo-woo, esoteric “energy medicine” at all, but instead a functional, “flesh and bones” medicine based on the same basic physiology as western medicine?  And what if I told you I could explain the mechanisms of Chinese medicine in simple, familiar terms that any eight year-old could understand and even the most skeptical, conservative doctor couldn’t argue with?

Here’s the thing. The “energy meridian” model that has become the default explanation of Chinese medicine US is not only out of sync with our modern, scientific understanding of the body – it’s also completely inconsistent with classical Chinese medical theory.  In other words, we’ve made up our own western version of Chinese medicine that has little to do with how it was understood and practiced since it began more than 3,000 years ago in China.

This gross mischaracterization has kept Chinese medicine on the fringes of conventional medical care since the 1930s and 1940s.  Most doctors and patients have simply been unable to accept the explanation they’ve been offered for how acupuncture works. The result is that acupuncture has come to be seen as either a mystical, psychic medicine or a foofy, relaxing spa-type treatment.

And that’s a big shame. Because Chinese medicine is in fact a complete system of medicine that has successfully treated many common health conditions for more than 2,500 years. Chinese medicine was passed through the ages in an unbroken lineage of some of the best minds of China. It was used by emperors and the royal courts to help them live into their 90s and stay fertile into their 80s at a time when the average life expectancy in the west was 30 years.

The Chinese were performing detailed human dissections where they carefully measured the blood vessels and weighed the internal organs at a time when western physicians thought the body was made up of “humors”. These dissections helped Chinese physicians to discover the phenomenon of continuous blood circulation 2,000 years before it was discovered in the west. The discovery of blood circulation is still considered the single most important event in the history of medicine.

Chinese medicine has been around for a very, very long time. The first evidence of the type of medicine that led to the Chinese Medicine in use today dates back to about 6,000 BC, which was during the neolithic (new stone age) period. Stone tools from this period have been found that were specially shaped for making small incisions in the skin, which was the early form of acupuncture. That’s 8,000 years of uninterrupted use. To put this in perspective, western medicine as we’ve come to recognize it today wasn’t even invented until the 1350s (the middle ages), which makes it less than 700 years old. Ah hem.

Let me ask you this. Do you think Chinese medicine would have survived for more than 3,000 years and spread to every corner of the globe if it wasn’t a powerful, complete system of medicine?

The reason Chinese medicine isn’t more popular in the west is that it’s completely misunderstood even by the people who practice it. And as long as acupuncturists continue to promote the “energy meridian” model as the explanation for how Chinese works, it’s destined to remain a fringe alternative modality.

In the next article I’m going to give you an explanation for how Chinese medicine works that is not only historically accurate, but also consistent with the principles of anatomy and physiology as we understand them today. I’m also going to tell you how this blatant mischaracterization of Chinese medicine in the west came about.

Read the next post in the series: Chinese Medicine Demystified (Part II): Origins of the “Energy Meridian” Myth

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