China's Health Minister Chen Zhu has called for respect to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the scientific value of which is doubted by some people.
"A prudent scientist should not judge TCM in haste if he did not understand its meaning, advantage and core theories," Chen, a Paris-trained hematology scientist, said in Beijing on Monday at a health forum.
Chen's made the remarks amid continuing debate about the value and efficacy of medicine practices of TCM which go back millennia and are rooted deeply in Chinese culture.
Long before the start of modern medical science, the Chinese had developed complex theories about the treatment of illnesses. The first Chinese medical classic - The Yellow Emperor's Canon of Medicine - dates back to between 403 BC and 221 BC. Remedies made from natural ingredients, such as wild plants and animal parts, and simple tools such as acupuncture needles were used by TCM doctors to treat patients.
But in the mid 19th century, TCM declined due to the growing popularity of western medicine. TCM was even officially banned for a time under the rule of the Kuomintang Party.
After the founding of the People's Republic of China, TCM was rehabilitated and developed alongside western medicine. About 3,000 hospitals in China provide TCM treatments to nearly 234 million patients each year.
Despite its popularity, TCM is not widely used in health care systems abroad and faces criticism at home. Among the accusations, critics say TCM's theories lack scientific evidence and its remedies are ineffective and, in some cases, unsafe.
A nationwide debate erupted over the survival of TCM last year after a proposal floated on the internet by a leading academic that it should no longer be practiced in hospitals.
The proposal, from Zhang Gongyao, a professor with Central South University, attracted strong opposition from the Ministry of Health. A spokesman said, "TCM is an inseparable and important component of China's health sector." Many outraged opponents said Zhang's ideas "ignored history and might kill off Chinese culture".
Minister Chen acknowledged that TCM did need to improve itself and move with the times as it had been resting on experience and philosophical arguments for a long time.
But he said cultural differences meant that TCM was very different from western medicine. "Experience and instinct served as key cognition methods in oriental culture, but in the west, people relied more on experiment and reasoning."
Striking a comparison between classic western still-life oil painting and traditional Chinese landscape painting, Chen explained that western medicine focused more on clear details of the components, while TCM tended to present a vague picture of the whole.
Despite the differences, the minister said that the two medical theories also shared many similarities in basic concepts.
"TCM believes in the harmony of man with nature, which is pretty similar to western theories of the relations between health and environment; TCM emphasizes that diagnosis and treatment should be based on an overall analysis of the illness and the patient's condition, while in western medicine, pharmacogenetics (the study of how genes affect the way people respond to medicines) is used to find the most effective remedies for patients..."
Chen said one noticeable phenomenon is that the high level of specialization within western medicine has "fragmentized" the whole medical system and the treatment procedure.
"Almost all the complicated diseases are affected by multiple factors... Under the fragmented diagnosis and treatment system, we've lost many chances for simple remedy and early intervention."
The minister urged scientists to break the block between TCM and western medicine so as to develop a new medical science of the 21st century, which could incorporate the advantages of the two medicines.
"If the core concepts of TCM, such as the holistic view, preventative approach and treatment based on patients' conditions, could be further studied and developed, TCM is likely to have a far-reaching impact on the modern medical system, medical policy, pharmaceutical industry and even the whole economic sector," Chen said.
(Xinhua News Agency October 18, 2007)