Understanding Chinese medicine begins with theory. All modern entry level texts start with a discussion on Yin and Yang, the five elements, the qi, the blood, the Jing, the fluids, the organs and viscera, the channels, and so forth. These construct the foundation for pathology, diagnosis, treatment, and pharmacology. These fundamental concepts setup a system wherein all prior and future medical knowledge can be recorded and passed down without confusion. The earliest recordings of herbs make simple distinctions in flavor and “qi” quality, later texts give a more in-depth explanation of how physiologically herbs enter specific channels and affect certain organs or qi or blood, and current research uses modern understanding of pharmacochemistry, anatomy and physiology to describe effects. It is only at this point of modern day research that Chinese medicine is starting to leave the established system of classification. This is a mistake as the fundamental theories already allow for flexibility and restructuring of increasing knowledge. Research that lacks an understanding of the fundamental system will only lead to misuse and trouble; while research which draws upon the knowledge of classical records will lead to breakthroughs in treatment and advances in knowledge.
Chinese medicine has a continuous system of how knowledge is recorded throughout history. The earliest records, whether regarding pathology, herbal remedies, acupuncture, or any area of medicine though they may be simple, nonetheless use the same vocabulary that will continue to be used throughout all of Chinese medicine’s several thousand year history. As experience builds and more medicinal substances are discovered, the records become increasingly comprehensive; though always steadfastly using the same system of description and recording.
As this system was established to record all observations and as Chinese language has been consistently used for over two thousand years, there is an uninterrupted stream of knowledge. This allows for modern day Chinese medicine researchers to trace the development of understanding throughout time. Of course new disease names were added as necessary, but the overall constructs of the theoretical system remained constant. Western medical terminology only settled into an unchanging and accessible system around the 15th century when Greek and Arabic texts were translated into Latin. And medical language since can often be incongruous as terms are borrowed and coined from Latin, Greek, and all modern international languages.
In our society there is always a drive to search for further explanations of natural phenomenon. Some people grab from the past while others test newly developing theories. Both are terrific methods for furthering understanding of our world. But just as those who test new theories must be careful in analyzing the results, people who take from the past must be just as selective and critical; they must understand the history of those ideas and not misconstrue meaning with modern day bias.
The fundamental theory of Chinese medicine, especially regarding Yin/Yang, the five elements, the organs and viscera, the blood, qi, Jing, and fluids must be understood systematically. Yin/Yang theory sets up a system for comparing and contrasting opposites, how the body maintains homeostasis. Five element theory sets up a system of interrelation, how one function inhibits or enables another. Organ theory sets up the framework for how physiological and neurological processes are categorized. Blood, Qi, Jing, and fluid theory set up a system of how the body’s defense mechanisms, growth processes, and nutritive function can be explained.
This is the system. And only by understanding this system can modern day Chinese medicine practitioners correctly treat patients.
This is how pharmacology, pathology, and etiology have always been recorded; how case studies have been passed down from generation to generation.
In studying Chinese medicine we can analyze the vocabulary of the ancient physicians, we can look at their meanings with respect to the times in which they lived. Though if taken too narrowly, this approach simply becomes an exercise in academics and has little clinical value.
It is more important to have a broad view, to draw upon the stream of knowledge spanning over two thousand years. Ultimately it is essential to understand the system, to see the genius in the system; how it sets up for consistency and allows for supplemental advances in knowledge and experience.