An Introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine
(written by You-Sheng Li)

Click Here to Reach the Author's Website

(This page was written mainly based on: Basic Theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine edited by Zhang Enqin, Shanghai: Publishing House of Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, 1990)

(1)   Excerpts from A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy:

Taoist Influence on Chinese Medicine 

Chinese traditional medicine has been developed under the  influence of Taoist philosophy and this association of Taoist religion with medicine has been regarded as its major attraction to the people. The differences between Chinese and Western medicine can be found in those parts that developed under the influence of  Taoist philosophy.Chinese medicine considers the patient as a whole while Western medicine considers the disease only. A major treatment in Chinese medicine is to help the patient’s adjustment and strengthen the patient’s defenses against the disease. Chinese medicine sees the lack of harmony with nature as a major reason why disorders develop. Chinese medicine advocates moderation when fulfilling one’s physical desires. Excess pleasure will weaken or damage our health. The Taoist theories of yin yang and the five elements are also the fundamentaltheories of Chinese medicine.Taoist breathing practices and Chinese acupuncture share the same theory: Energy circulates along more than a dozen routs inside the body. Because of the Taoist pursuit of longevity and immortality, tonicmedicine and hygiene are a major part of Chinese medicine. In other words, Chinese medicine emphasizes prevention.

 (2)  History

Traditional Chinese medicine, TCM or Chinese medicine for short, has a history almost as long as Chinese civilization. One example to show the long history of Chinese medicine is that the early acupuncture used stone needles, and later bone needles came into use. It clearly indicates that acupuncture developed during the (New) Stone Age.

The theories of Chinese medicine come mainly from practice. More than 2,000 years ago Canon of Medicine, the earliest of the extant medical classics in China appeared. Traditionally this book was put under the name of the Yellow Emperor but it was compiled much later. This classic medical book was known to later generations as two books: Plain Questions and Miraculous Pivot. The latter is also known as Cannon of Acupuncture or Nine Volumes. The book of Cannon of Medicine extensively summarizes and systematizes the previous experiences of Chinese medicine, deals at length with the anatomy, physiology, pathology, diagnosis, therapy, and prevention. It lays a primary foundation of the theory of Chinese medicine. A second book which matches Cannon of Medicine is titled Classic on Medical Problems. It is traditionally believed that it was written by Qin Yueren before the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).

The Herbal was put under the name of Shennong or Godly Farmer but it was likely compiled during the Qin/Han dynasties (221 BC – 220 AD). It is the summary of pharmaceutical knowledge during that time. It discusses in detail 365 kinds of drugs, and it also mentioned the basic pharmacological theories which are still being taught in today’s Chinese medical schools. It includes the following: Jun Chen Zuo Shi (monarch, minister, assistant, and guide) indicating the different functions of drugs in a prescription; the Four Qi’s, four properties of drugs; Five Tastes, five kinds of flavours: sour, bitter, sweet, acrid, salty. Long term clinical practice and modern scientific researches have proved that most of the effects of the drugs recorded in this book are true, as with Chinese ephedrine ( Herba Ephedrae) used in the treatment of asthma, goldthread root ( Rhizoma Coptidis) prescribed in dysentery, kelp ( Sargassum) prescribed in goiter and so on.

In about 11th century A.D., Chinese medicine began to use the variolation method to prevent smallpox, and thus became the pioneer of immunology in the world.

Li Shenzhen (1518-1593) was a great physician and pharmacologist in the Ming dynasty. He got a clear understanding of the growing forms of many medicinal plants by climbing up to the mountains to pick up herbs of medical value on his own and doing investigation conscientiously in many places, dissecting some medicinal ingredients from animals and watching out for their effects by following their traces, and comparing and refining some medicinal minerals. Meanwhile he consulted more than 800 sorts of documents, and then he was able to finish his great book: Compendium of Materia Medica. It took him 27 years. This book lists 1,892 medicines and more than 10,000 prescriptions. It is a great contribution to the development of pharmacology both in China and throughout the world.

In the last 100 years, with the widespread use of Western Medicine in China, a new situation has arisen in which Chinese medicine and Western Medicine are developing side by side. A new trend or school of combining Chinese and Western medicine has gradually taken place. When the source of this web page Basic Theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine was published for the second edition, China has some 340,000 doctors practicing Chinese medicine, 1,500 hospitals, 26 medical colleges, and 30 academies specialized in Chinese medicine. It must be pointed out that those doctors and institutions are greatly influenced by Western medicine especially in diagnosis and in medical theory, but mainly relying on herbs and acupuncture to treat patients. Now some doctors advocate that professionals of TCM have to rely on Chinese medicine only without reference to modern Western medicine.

(3) The Basic Characteristics of Chinese Medicine


1. The Concept of an Organic Whole


By “an organic whole”, we mean entirety and unity. Chinese medicine attaches great importance to the unity of the human body itself and its relationship with nature, and holds that the human body itself is an organic whole and has very close and inseparable relations with the external natural surroundings.


The body is made up of viscera, bowels, tissues and other organs. They are all related to each other in many specific ways. For example, the heart is interior-exteriorly related to the small intestine, controls blood circulation, and has its specific opening in the tongue proper and so on.


Five Viscera

Six Bowels

Five Body Tissues

Five Sense Organs



small intestine





large intestine















urinary  bladder



Ear, urethral, anus

The triple warmer of the six bowels coordinates with the pericardium


Furthermore, Chinese medicine bases its diagnosis and treatment on this concept of an organic whole.


2. Diagnosis and Treatment Based on an Overall Anal

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A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy
An Anthropological/Psychological View
Paper back with references and index, 243 pages

You-Sheng Li, Ph.D.
(click the above bookcover to read part of the book)


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Chinese edition 401 pages; 中文版﹐401頁﹐書後有文獻與索引

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