Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is one of the most complex, highly developed traditional healing theories in the world, rivaled in its scope only by Ayurveda. Several parts comprise TCM: acupuncture, traditional Chinese herbal medicine, dietary interventions, exercise systems such as Tai Chi and Chi Gung, and theories about architecture and interior decoration known as Feng Shui. Its principles are essentially Taoist in nature and encompass (in principle) every aspect of human existence.

The principles of Chinese medicine developed within the larger sphere of the Taoist religion. Primitive acupuncture needles dating back to around 1000 BC have been discovered in archaeologic finds of the Shan dynasty in China.1 The theoretical framework underlying the practice of acupuncture was first set forth in the Inner Classic of Medicine, or Nei Jing, first published in 206 BC during the Han dynasty. Chinese herbal medicine, however, developed somewhat later. It received its first rudimentary theoretical foundations in the first or second century AD, but it was not until the 12th century that the deeper principles of Chinese medicine were fully applied to herbal treatment.2

Chinese medical theories involving diet follow along much the same lines as herbal theory; essentially, each food is an herb and has its own characteristic effects on the body. (A variation of this system known as macrobiotics has become famous.)

The relative importance of the two fields has waxed and waned over time. Herbology reached a state of high development in the 14th and 15th centuries; acupuncture then reached what might be called a golden age under the Ming dynasty in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Subsequently, herbal medicine gained in importance; by the time acupuncture came back in vogue in 20th-century China, it had undergone a major transformation sometimes called the “herbalization of acupuncture.”

The martial arts for which China is famous also developed within the context of Taoism, and therefore follow principles consistent with Chinese medicine. The healing martial art known as Tai Chi is said to have been invented by the monk Chang San-Feng sometime in the Middle Ages; however, the exact dates (and even the existence of this monk) are disputed.

In China today, various aspects of TCM are used along with conventional Western medical treatment. Considerable attempts have been made to subject acupuncture, herbal therapy, and healing martial arts to scientific evaluation; however, most of the published Chinese studies on the subject fall far short of current scientific standards. (For example, they frequently lack a control group.)

In neighboring Japan, a variation of the traditional Chinese herbal system known as Kampo has become extremely popular, and many Kampo remedies have been approved for medical use by the Japanese Health Ministry. The scientific basis for these remedies remains inadequate, but several studies of moderately good quality have been reported.