Ian Johnson
Ian Johnson

The debate on the clash between traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine continues after Tu Youyou obtained as the first Chinese the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Journalist Ian Johnson interviews for the New York Times the eminent expert Paul U.Unschuld on the position of Chinese Traditional Medicine in today´s China.

Ian Johnson:

Paul Unschuld: In 2007, the government invited politicians and experts from 50 countries to draft the Beijing Declaration on Traditional Chinese Medicine and declared T.C.M. to be part of biomedicine. The future of T.C.M. was seen in molecular biological legitimation. I was the German delegate, and one high-ranking Chinese politician voiced amazement to me that some Westerners, exposed to modern science for centuries, believe in the Five Phases theory. You see, political decision makers in China can’t understand this because the Five Phases doctrine won’t make your mobile phone work. It won’t shoot a rocket to the moon. The government is not interested in promoting yin and yang and the Five Phases because it is convinced that people who believe in that are lost for the strengthening of China vis-à-vis the West. And we do see that young Chinese people are less and less open to these ideas. T.C.M. colleges in China have problems finding competent students.

Q.What about the Nobel Prize and Chinese medicine?
A.I met Prof. Tu Youyou in the 1970s. She was a modern pharmacological researcher, working on harnessing certain herbs. She’s a perfect example for the successful modernization of Chinese medicine. Her successes are unrelated to yin and yang or the Five Phases. She had a great education in Western science, and she and her team searched through ancient literature for medications recommended to cure malaria. She used modern science to analyze Artemisia annua, figured out the active ingredient of the plant and modified it until it exerted an antimalaria effect never achieved in China before. That is what Mao Zedong had asked for: the unification of historical Chinese and modern Western medicine.
Q.These views contradict how many in the West see Chinese medicine.
A.Professor Tu’s discovery had nothing to do with what most Westerners define as traditional Chinese medicine, except that the substance she examined is described in ancient pharmaceutical literature. The Chinese authorities are trying to strip historical Chinese medicine of superstition and nonsense. What is left can exist with molecular biology.

That disappoints those in the West who see T.C.M. as an alternative to biomedicine. These people don’t understand why the Chinese authorities act like this. The trauma of the 19th- and early-20th-century humiliation is still present. For 100 years, China has been struggling on many fronts to catch up with the West. Professor Tu’s Nobel Prize is proof of the success of this policy.

Q.And yet many people in China opt for traditional medicine.
A.Western medicine can’t achieve miracles, and there are many everyday health problems it cannot solve. Many Chinese — and Westerners — know that there are recipes in Chinese medicine that work, regardless of whether there is scientific evidence. It is a characteristic common to all societies with a coexistence of modern and traditional health care options. Patients are aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the alternatives and oscillate between modernity and tradition accordingly.

More in the New York Times.

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Earlier Ian Johnson talked on how modern Yuppies in China look for quality, and shop around for the best choices.

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