A Chinese Attitude Towards Health

By 2018-12-26 15:19:25

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) claims a history of over 2,500 years, so it’s safe to say that there’s been plenty of trial and error –genuine tested science – in order to discover what truly makes the body tick.The entire concept of TCM is based on two main parts - qi, which is seen as the vital energy, and yin and yang, which is about harmony. So when discussing Chinese scientific history and contemporary methods, it’s key to understanding the background of these two perspectives.


East meets West

In the west, we may have some slightly different ideas about health and wellness than our friends to the east. Dr. Doris Rathgeber, founder of Body & Soul, wants  to clear up some of the misconceptions that Westerners might have about TCM.

“TCM is an empirical health system based on thousands of years of experience – it is not based on beliefs. We do not adapt the philosophies to Westerners but explain thoroughly how the diagnostic and healing processes work as foreigners usually do not have a background in TCM.”

Dr. Rathgeber further explains that, although in the west we learn about blood, bones, and organs, in the east, traditional medicine is more focused on the delicate ecosystem that is the human body. This ecosystem is mostly represented by qi and yin and yang.


Yin and Yang

The philosophy of yin and yang is at least 3,500 years old,being first mentioned in history in the ninth century BCE text known as the IChing or Book of Changes. The differing aspects of yin and yang are essentially opposites of notable traits; yin is characterized as slow, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, wet, and passive; and is associated with water, earth, the moon, femininity, and night time. Yang, by contrast, is fast, hard, solid, focused,hot, dry, and active. It is associated with fire, sky, the sun, masculinity, and daytime.

The origin of yin and yang is noted to have been born as the Chinese time-keeping system of using a pole to measure the changing lengths of shadows over the solar year. It relates to a visual idea of the balance between daylight and night time relevant to the changing daytime hours in summer and winter. Yang begins at the winter solstice when daylight dominates over darkness and is associated with the sun. Yin starts at summer solstice, is associated with the moon, and represents the time when darkness rules over daylight.

The distinct energies of yin and yang rule all life. Even in your home, yin and yang come into play in feng shui. Yin, being a passive energy, is related to relaxation and calm. It works best in your bedroom and bathroom with soft music, calm colors, and water. Yang, an active energy, is more appropriate for a home office or kitchen, with bright lights, vivid colors, tall plants, and upwards energy. It’s all about balance – a home with only one of these energies will create a state of imbalance or chaos. The same is true for the body – balance is the foundation of stable health.



Qi guides all aspects of Chinese health systems. Harmony results in wellbeing and sustainability, while disharmony reeks of illness, disease, and suffering.


The ancient Chinese described qi as “life force.” They believed it permeated everything and linked their surroundings together. Qi was also linked to the flow of energy around and through the body, forming a cohesive functioning unit. By understanding the rhythm and flow of qi, they believed they could guide exercises and treatments to provide stability and longevity.

The Chinese belief in qi is actually similar in one crucial way to modern scientific Western understanding - that energy is never created or destroyed, but is rather transferred or transformed. In fact, this is the first law of the Three Laws of Thermodynamics in physics. This idea also relates to yin and yang, as it is directly tied to qi - anything with energy contains both yin and yang. This balance is key to understanding TCM - to give just one example, you may already know that acupuncture takes the whole body into account; if you have an ailment in one particular part of the body, you might receive treatment on a completely different part. The idea is that the whole body and all of our energies are connected in a delicate balance. Even the Chinese word for exercise - qi gong - relates to working out one’s qi.


The Body-Mind Connection

Paying attention to the body–mind connection is crucial, as well as to the external environment. Chinese people traditionally lived closely with the cycles of nature such as day and night, and tended to eat seasonally.In our fast-paced world, we often ignore these things and throw our bodies off kilter. Dr. Rathgeber best framed this idea to us: “Sometimes health becomes compromised in Shanghai, so we need to find balance. This is particularly important when we’re away from the comforts of home, on a new schedule, and under pressure. It’s easy to get worn down physically and mentally. 

However, Shanghai expats have a great opportunity to tap into ancient wisdom and practices. This might mean incorporating pointers about lifestyle or eating, or developing a regular practice of yoga, tai chi, qi gong, meditation, or martial arts.”

So, now that you have a basic grasp of TCM, how do the Chinese use these principles to maintain their health?


Balance in Diet

The same concept of energy and balance continues into ideas about diet and food. There are five energies of food, translated as “hot,” “cold,” “warm,” “cool,” and “neutral.” This can be confusing because it does not refer to temperature. If anything, it’s more similar to Western scientific views such as acidic or alkaline. Hot tea has a ‘cold’ energy because after you drink lots of tea you’ll need to go to the toilet and heat will exit your body, leaving you cold. Red pepper is hot, even if you have it in a cold salad, because it generates heat within your body, leaving you hotter.

Once you understand diet and TCM, the everyday advice is actually very practical. Someone suffering from sensitive joints should eat hot foods in winter to warm up, and if you have a skin rash in summer, eat cold foods to cool down the itchy heat. However, each person is different; some people have a hot constitution and some people are colder. The most important thing is that everyone needs to balance and harmonize their diet with a mix of food energy types.


Exercise & Rest

You will no doubt have seen groups of elderly Chinese people exercising in parks around the city at all times of the day. Their longevity is proof that tai chi is an effective method for remaining sprightly, or at least being able to slowly sway in set movements. The essential principles of tai chi are related to the integration of mind and body, the control of your movements, and even the control of your breathing. This practice is said to create and control internal energy and assist with mindfulness related to two concepts: song (loosening 松) and jing (serenity 静).

As well as exercise such as tai chi, according to TCM, one must rest well for yin energy to be cultivated. Resting well does not just mean stopping, napping, or sleeping, but also getting mindful rest. Mindful rest  involves meditation, quiet contemplation, time for reading, or consciously sitting in nature and taking in the natural surroundings. Some TCM doctors will even prescribe set times of rest during the day, something which in Western cultures we may forget as we power through the day with coffee and working lunches.


When you’re out of balance

But what do you do if your qi is off kilter and your yin and yang out of balance? Luckily for you, the Chinese have quite a few solutions for this particular ailment, including meditation, cupping, Gua Sha, and Ai Jiu, just to name a few.



The basic aspect of meditation is a keystone of Chinese wellness. Dr. Bruce Xu of Acupuncture Clinic told us that “of course the important aspects are nutrition and exercise, and TCM is directly used for the treatments of many sprains, pains, and long-term issues that are ongoing ailments, from frozen shoulder to tennis elbow. But meditation under the guidance of Buddhism is also a vital factor in the overall wellness of one’s body and mind.”



Cupping is a type of centralized blood therapy. It uses heat to discharge the air inside the cup (made from glass or bamboo) to form a negative pressure so that the cup is sucked tightly at the treatment meridian point, causing blood capillary dilation. It opens pores and surface blood veins to remove wetness, coldness, or stagnation from the body. Because this method is simple and the effect is obvious, it has been referred to in folk history for many generations.

Dr. Eva Zhang at Shanghai East International Medical Center explains more: “Both cupping and Gua Sha promote energy movement and blood circulation, dispel foreign bodies and exorcise toxins, and can therefore prevent or treat ailments, including but not limited to stiffness, Edema (water retention), and pain.”


Gua Sha

Another treatment is Gua Sha, which involves heavy scraping of the skin by particular instruments such as jade, which will result in angry-looking red blotches on the skin. It seems counter-intuitive to Western minds to cause such an affliction in order to heal anything, yet the  Chinese do swear that this relieves excess heat held in the body. Dr. Eva Zhang told us that “Gua Sha is a method using a Gua Sha board (stone or copper) and applying a few drops of essential oil, and then repeatedly scraping the surface of the skin from 100 to 200 times. It produces bruises on some people which are called “sha.”


Ai Jiu

Moxibustion, or Ai Jiu, is when a special herb, called mugwort, is burned near the skin. The herb is said to burn at a very specific temperature which will heal various issues of stiffness. For example, if you have a stiff shoulder and traditional massage has not helped it, Ai Jiu may help.

According to Dr. Eva Zhang, “Ai Jiu is a method using herbal “mugwort” to make moxa sticks and use them to treat cold, painful, or stiff areas. It is especially effective in treating bleeding caused by a spleen yang deficiency. It also has a significant effect on patients experiencing cold in the lower back, and it is particularly good for treating cold abdominal pain and diarrhea.

Dr. Eva Zhang also warns that if you do choose to do cupping, Gua Sha, or Ai Jiu, you should work with an experienced practitioner since many precautions are to be taken. However, if done correctly, choosing to incorporate these traditional Chinese remedies into your daily life is not only a great way to stay healthy and balanced, but is also a wonderful way to get more acquainted with your host country.