Can yi and biomedicine work together?

Most people who access Chinese traditional healing services also tend to access biomedicine services. Thus it might be considered desirable that biomedicine and traditional healing work together and complement each other.

To begin with, the question whether yi and biomedicine could work together might suggest some kind of lack in either yi or biomedicine. I would think the biomedicine establishment would be loathed to admit they need yi or any other kind of traditional healing to help it, despite the fact that enormous amounts of money are spent on medical research each year—which might suggest a great deal of lack in biomedicine. On the other hand, does yi need the help of biomedicine? From my own perspective—no. I’ve always found yi totally sufficient in dealing with all kinds of yinyang wuxing imbalances. Maybe there are times when yi physicians come across complicated cases, this is not the time for running to the biomedical doctors to ask for help, rather it is stimulus to further study of yinyang wuxing because the answers to the problems will lie within understanding more deeply yinyang wuxing.

This is a topic close to what I have spent almost a decade doing my PhD research on, and my book, Chinese Medicine Masquerading as Yi, is essentially about the project of trying to make yi practices compatible with biomedicine.

From 1950s onwards the communist Chinese government strenuously urged for the development of a “Chinese new medicine” (not a new Chinese medicine) out of old Chinese healing, which before the advent of biomedicine in China was simply called yi. In the early 1950s traditional yi physicians would still have vastly outnumbered biomedicine physicians.  Ralph Croizier, in his book Traditional Medicine in Modern China (1968), estimates that in 1937 there were approximately 9000 registered biomedicine physicians, compared to 500,000 yi practitioners.

Ever since the creation of the republican governments after the fall of dynastic China, governments had sought to marginalized traditional physicians. The first Republican governments wanted to recognize only western biomedical education for the training of physicians and were even keen on banning yi altogether, except for the fact of widespread popular protests. When the Communist Party came to power in late 1949 it was committed to modern scientific based training for physicians but didn’t want to simply discard the role of the older style yi physicians.  The government, nevertheless, was quite uncomfortable with the notions of yinyang wuxing and wanted something more scientifically acceptable, and therefore attempted to engage biomedicine physicians to reformulate yi practices into something less feudal and superstitious, and which could incorporate anatomy, and diseases concepts and categories.

Although the western trained biomedical doctors never managed to reformulate yi, a group of yi doctors , such as Ren Yingqiu, Qin Bowei, and Fang Yaozhong, and Deng Tietao,  did take up the government challenge of producing a Chinese new medicine. The results of their efforts can now be called TCM. How TCM was different from yi was the increasing marginalization of yinyang wuxing and the development of a more anatomical based medicine that could include diseases concepts, which had not existed in yi before. While it kept the use of ancient formulas it chose to use them in a way that disregarded the roots of yinyang wuxing conditions of the patient, but emphasized symptoms or syndromes only. What was meant by syndromes would be, for example, a pale and weak appearance would indicate blood deficiency but not what was causing the blood deficiency.

So the answer or one answer to whether traditional healing and biomedicine can work together is already exemplified by the case of the TCM, which is either that biomedicine takes over traditional healing or traditional healing takes over biomedicine. We know that the power asymmetry works greatly in the favour of biomedicine—for now.

What I also think of this topic about whether traditional and biomedicine can help one another is that we should really move on from the discussion.  There is a prayer of Shen Nong that goes: “Let soil return to its habitat and water to its gully, and let no insects create havoc, and may all grasses and plants return to their marshy place 土反其宅 ,水歸其壑 。 昆蟲毋作 ,草木歸其澤.” My wish would be to let yi return to its rightful place.

One thought on “Can yi and biomedicine work together?

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  1. Thank you for the article, doctor Chang.
    Ideally Yi could be used to prevent and treat Bing 病 in general, while biomedicine could be used only in emergency situations to prevent patients from dying for example of a heart attack or ruptured artery. Ideally that would be one way for the two approaches to co-exist: one is working as a farmer who believes the body-mind is a garden that needs to be “cultivated” when it manifests an imbalance, the other is working as an engineer who believes the body is a machine that needs to be fixed when it “breaks down”.


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