Chinese Medicine Is Popular Because Of A ’70s Misunderstanding

“Buddha is frequently termed the ‘King of Physicians,’ the only possessor of the true remedy for the eternal cure of illness.” —Paul Ulrich Unschuld, Medicine in China: A History of Ideas

In A Nutshell

Chinese herbal medicine is quite popular in the West. You can buy all sorts of herbs online and sellers have sprung up in malls around the world. The marketing rhetoric is consistent, claiming the Chinese have been doing this for thousands of years and still do, but the truth is much different.

In the late 1960s, China’s doctors and hospitals were practicing the same medicine as in the West, but doctors were reluctant to settle outside of China’s cities. This left a huge percentage with no medical care, so a program to train farmers with basic medical knowledge was undertaken. A handbook was provided to the recruits, which contained herbal options to address the unavailability of real drugs in rural areas. People in the West missed that the use of herbs was intended as a last resort for when proper medicine was unavailable and times were desperate, and the Chinese medicine fad was born.

The Whole Bushel

In the late 1960s, China was under the rule of Communist chairman Mao Zedong, who was implementing his cultural revolution. At the time, only around 2 percent of China’s population lived in cities. In major population centers, China’s hospitals practiced Western medicine, but the majority of the rural population didn’t have access. Doctors were reluctant to move into the rural areas, leaving a healthcare gap. Mao looked for a convenient way to fix it.

As in the West, traditional medicine had been based on unscientific and often incorrect notions. Thousands of traditional healers lived around the Chinese countryside. For all China’s rulers wanted to introduce modern healthcare, leaving that number of people out of work was something China could little afford. As a result, the Communist party adopted traditional Chinese medicine (though Mao tellingly refused it for his personal care).

Mao’s other solution to the lack of medical care was the barefoot doctor program, which trained hundreds of thousands of farmers in basic care and sent them back to their villages to work as medics. Unfortunately, this training did not resolve the issue of a lack of hospitals and medicine. Without drugs and equipment, the barefoot doctors were forced to improvise. To help, they were provided with the Barefoot Doctor Manual, which contained information on herbs and treatments that a healer could resort to if proper medicine was unavailable.

When the manual found its way to the West, it was seen as a window into how the Chinese chose to look after their ill. The situation in China, and the fact that China’s actual doctors were not practicing medicine in that particular way, was either unknown or ignored. People in China who had the option received the same medical treatments that were being provided in the West.

However, it was the 1970s, John Lennon was married to Yoko Ono, and Eastern wisdom was fashionable. Western authors wrote books on their interpretations, which sold. Seduced by the promise of exotic and ancient practices, people in the West are willing to spend money on everything from herbs to acupuncture. Ultimately, China’s medicine-of-last-resort in the mid-20th century has become a popular lifestyle choice for many people today.

Show Me The Proof

“Acupuncture Anesthesia”: a Proclamation from Chairman Mao (Part III)
Traditional Chinese Medicine for Flu
Mao’s Barefoot Doctors: The Secret History of Chinese Medicine