Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Health in China: Traditional Chinese medicine: one country, two systems

BMJ 1997; 315 doi: (Published 12 July 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:115
  1. Therese Hesketh, research fellowa,
  2. Wei Xing Zhu, programme manager, East Asiab
  1. a Centre for International Child Health, London WC1 N1EH
  2. b Health Unlimited, London SE1 9NT
  1. Correspondence to: Dr Hesketh


    China is the only country in the world where Western medicine and traditional medicine are practised alongside each other at every level of the healthcare system. Traditional Chinese medicine has a unique theoretical and practical approach to the treatment of disease, which has developed over thousands of years. Traditional treatments include herbal remedies, acupuncture, acupressure and massage, and moxibustion. They account for around 40% of all health care delivered in China. The current government policy of expansion of traditional facilities and manpower is being questioned because many hospitals using traditional Chinese medicine are already underutilised and depend on government subsidies for survival. Research priorities include randomised controlled trials of common treatments and analysis of the active agents in herbal remedies. As more studies show the clinical effectiveness of traditional Chinese medicine, an integrated approach to disease using a combination of Western medicine and traditional approaches becomes a possibility for the future.

    An ancient textbook

    Over thousands of years traditional Chinese medicine has developed a theoretical and practical approach to the treatment and prevention of disease. The first documented source of Chinese medical theory, the Huangdi Nei Jing (“Inner Classic of the Yellow Emperor”) was written between 300 BC and 100 BC. It describes the diagnosis and treatment of a huge range of disorders and gives advice about healthy lifestyles, exercise, and diet which conforms remarkably well with current recommendations for the prevention of chronic disease. There is also accurate dietary advice about how to avoid micronutrient deficiency diseases such as beri-beri, xerophthalmia, and goitre.1

    As with most forms of traditional medicine, the theoretical and diagnostic basis of traditional Chinese medicine cannot be explained in terms of Western anatomy and physiology. It is rooted in the philosophy, logic, and beliefs of a different civilisation and leads to a perception of health and disease …

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