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

  • DFK

    This is much better written and informative article than I’m used to to seeing on here, keep it up!

    • szorokin

      some FACTS:

      #1 /a: The word drug itself comes from the Swedish word “drug”, which means ‘dried plant’.
      #1 /b: All plants produce chemical compounds as part of their normal metabolic activities. The autologous functions of secondary metabolites are varied. For example, as toxins to deter predation, or to attract insects for pollination. It is these secondary metabolites which can have therapeutic actions in humans and which can be refined to produce drugs.
      [ examples are inulin from the roots of ‘Dahlias’, quinine from the ‘Cinchona’, morphine and codeine from the ‘Poppy’, and digoxin from the ‘Foxglove’. The active ingredient in Willow bark, salacin, or salicylic acid led to the development of aspirin, acetyl-salicylic acid, originally a trade name, patented by Bayer. ]

      #2: In fact, approximately 25% of modern drugs used in the United States have been derived from plants.

      #3: According to the WHO, 74% of 119 modern plant-derived pharmaceutical
      medicines are used in ways that correlated directly with their
      traditional uses.

  • Hillyard

    Finally got to read this. Well worth the wait.

  • Franny

    This article is opinionated, lacks research and just lame. Ever wonder why only a few ppl visit this site? It’s because some articles are a complete trash.

    • Blue

      Are you a believer in the placebo effect associated with herbal remedies? Because that is truly fascinating.

      Seriously just google herbal remedies and placebo effect for the medical studies and then come back and say this is opinionated, this article explained concisely the misinformation that people in the west have believed in for nearly half a century which is based on last resorts in Chinese rural communities before those people can actually get proper medical attention.

      For a direct example go and look at the medical studies of herbal antidepressants and then understand that only kava has shown any anxiolytic effects in humans.

    • Jeff Maas

      Your comment is ironically more opinionated, lacking of research, and lame than the entire article! It is interesting how so many people are so passionate about things they know so little about; revealing such with vague arguments like “Franny” has given here.

      • Franny

        Haters gonna hate. Keep commenting your arguments 🙂

        • lonelydisco

          They’re not arguments. And are you a teenage girl or something?

  • Exiled Phoenix

    Figures the head honcho of Red China wanted real medicine rather than some locally cooked up mumbo jumbo. Guy still had no problem executing those that he viewed as more intelligent than him…Very sad when intellectualism is savagely destroyed.

  • I smoke weed everday

    An American website trying to discredit Chinese innovations? I’m not surprised. Americans are scum.

    • N Rey

      Go chug some tiger dong you waste of space.

    • Kenneth Browning

      It’s not an American website.

    • Paynefully

      Go eat some dog

  • Phil_42

    people who believe in alternate medicines have always fascinated me. In our capitalist society its only logical to conclude that if these things actually worked then the drug companies would be using them and making money off them.

    • Wiley Peyote

      Derp !!! … drug companies don’t work with anything they can’t PATENT and monopolise !

      • Phil_42

        That would be my point. If there was any substance to these treatments they would find a way to use them and profit.

        • Wiley Peyote

          That wasn’t your point at all.

          Quote “if these things actually worked then the drug companies would be using them and making money off them”

          Many DO work – BUT they CANNOT patent them. That is why they do not use them.

          They would not invest a dime in anything that people could grow and harvest themselves. Unless they control the supply and can then charge exorbitant prices they are not interested, regardless of how effective it is as a treatment.

          • Phil_42

            Well how about St. Johns Wart? A natural anti-depressant (actually a weed) that you could easily grow in your backyard that people still pay money for to take in pill form as an alternative to traditional treatments. It works, therefore it is made into an extract and sold. Also I don’t think I mentioned the word patent. It is true that no person or company can own a patent on a specific herb, but if a company can prove through science that a particular herb has beneficial effects they will not hesitate to turn it into an extract and sell it to us. The majority of these treatment don’t fit this criteria.

          • szorokin

            it is true ONLY IF “we” know EVERYTHING about ALL species of..(plants, fungi, ..)


  • Hadeskabir

    My friend’s mother is a doctor and even though she works in a hospital she practices traditional chinese medicine at home to patients she thinks they could get better results with alternative medicine. After reading this I’m beginning to think that what she is doing is not such a good idea.

  • Errkism

    Honestly, I’m not surprised. Eastern medicine always seemed like a joke.

    • Errkism

      I believe the correct term is traditional medicine, not eastern.

  • lonelydisco

    Some of the Philippines people around here advocate traditional medicine and faith healing merely because of a love of tradition and nationalism. There’s also the religious aspect involved.

    I feel like grimacing every time I think about it. I have to explain to people: the age of miracles should be over by now! Your man-god has come to Earth, and now no more miracles! Get over it!