Acupuncture: Influencing the Deep Dynamics of the Organism through Touch and Movement
Acupuncture is a second group of practices and theories that illustrate how Taoist metaphysics can be used. It is one of the main branches of Chinese medicine. The theory of acupuncture is close to that of the I Ching, but it develops themes that are born out of a detailed exploration of the dynamics of chi.
Chinese Medicine and Western Medicine
A way to situate the particular alternatives of Chinese medicine is to contrast its origins with those of the medicine of the ancient Egyptians.7 The Egyptians and Chinese of old felt an immense respect for their dead. However, this respect expressed itself in opposite ways that lead to two different types of medicine.
The Egyptians embalmed the cadaver so that it might protect the soul of the deceased and buried it near the family home (in a pyramid if the deceased were a pharaoh). To accomplish that, they developed an immense surgical and physiological competence that allowed them to preserve the body for thousands of years. The art of embalming seems to have been particularly developed between c. 1738 and 1102 BC. This is how the Egyptians established one of the bases of allopathic medicine that is characterized in this discussion by the necessity to penetrate the body to gain understanding and provide treatment. The traditional Chinese belief is that an individual’s body belongs to the family.
Therefore, the body must be delivered intact to the family before its incineration. That is why the eunuchs of the imperial court preserved and kept their sexual organs in formalin, so that these could be burned with the rest of the body at the end of their life. The Chinese were thus horrified by any attempt to dissect a body, dead or alive. Their physicians also believed that an organ lost what characterized it on dying, and consequently, they would learn very little by dissecting a cadaver.
In the nineteenth century, European colonial powers and the United States were occupying some of the main cities of China. Their power was terrifying, their rule sometimes cruel. Their allopathic medicine was a standard-bearer of their civilizing mission. For the Europeans, scientificâ medicine was the only valid approach to cure disease. They constructed schools of medicine and asked the Chinese government for cadavers for their courses on anatomy. The Chinese authorities did not dare ignore what was presented to them as a requirement. At the same time, these authorities could not authorize the dissection of Chinese citizens. The compromise was to send to the European medical schools the cadavers of criminals put to death as soon as the executioner had severed their head. This solution posed a problem for the professors of anatomy when they wanted to teach the anatomy of the neck, for it had been damaged by the ax used for the execution. They wanted, for courses on head and neck anatomy, to receive the cadavers of individuals who had been killed in other ways. The Chinese authorities proposed sending those who were condemned to death to the medical schools, so that the physicians could kill them any way they wanted.8
In spite of their fear of dissection, the Chinese nonetheless possessed important knowledge about the body. Chinese physicians could observe cadavers on the battlefield or accompany the executioner during torture sessions. They would ask the executioner to torture the part of the body they wanted to study and documented it. The advantage was to be able to observe a living anatomy.9 On the battlefield, Chinese physicians measured the length of the principal blood vessels. In the torture chambers, they studied the circulation of the blood in the organs 2,000 years before European physicians. Having said this, Chinese anatomy leaves a lot to be desired. The Taoist Zhao Bichen (1933) published anatomical drawings based on what can be known by touching and through meditation. Even if it was influenced by the anatomy charts produced by Western medical schools, this anatomy is not precise and is simplistic. One of the reasons this my yoga blog is interesting is that it shows the limits of introspection to explore anatomy, even when it is used by great masters of meditation.
The cult of the ancestors is a foundation of Chinese culture. It explains the enormous investment in nonsurgical therapeutic methods, and consequently the institutional efforts dedicated to the development of therapeutic methods using massage, movement, and medication. This effort opened up to the therapeutic approach that is acupuncture. Like the I Ching, this method has only recently integrated scientific procedures, but its principles are explicit and intelligible, and therefore teachable.