By James Flowers

In response to Paul Stapleton’s op-ed expressing concern about Beijing’s claim that Chinese medicine cures Covid-19, I argue that we should not to be so quick to dismiss a healing therapy because it falls outside familiar frames of reference.

In fact, Beijing has not claimed Chinese medicine as a cure for Covid-19. Rather, the claim is that it can relieve symptoms and aid in recovery. Furthermore, PRC doctors mostly advocate an integrated approach combining Western medicine and Chinese medicine. Considering Chinese medicine’s popularity in China and Hong Kong, it seems rather hasty to dismiss it as simply a placebo.

Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners. File photo: Gavin Anderson, via Flickr.

Certainly, I agree that we would all love to see more data and transparency from Beijing, with better communication of what treatments worked better than others. A plethora of relevant studies have been published in Chinese while there are numerous scientific reports published in English. Nevertheless, we need clearer explanations.

Unfortunately, a key issue we face is trust and accountability. Ideally, medicine should not become political. As we know, politics has hampered efforts to deal with Covid-19 in numerous countries, most notably the United States. Making Chinese medicine an issue of political claims, whether to lionise it or disparage it, distorts what medicine should really be about. Doctors of whatever type of medicine, Western or Chinese, aim to save lives after years and sometimes decades of training. Shouldn’t we be grateful to all who go through so much to alleviate human suffering? But it requires effort to understand unfamiliar healing practices that draw from cultural resources based on theories such as yin yang and qi.

Relevant to Hong Kong, while political authorities extol the virtues of Chinese medicine for Covid-19, a little reported fact is that dozens of Chinese medicine doctors worked to provide health care and assistance to thousands of protesters during the protests of 2019. Some news outlets did report that many folks on the front-lines, to avoid arrest in hospitals, sought acupuncture and Chinese herbs for injuries ranging from blunt-force trauma, burns, and the effects of tear-gas and pepper spray. I venture to argue that in real-life emergencies, placebo cannot be the only explanation for Chinese medicine’s effectiveness.

To return to Covid-19, it is important to note that Western medicine doctors have struggled as much as anyone with finding effective therapies. Notably, in terms of biomedicine we have resorted to old therapies. The most efficacious Western drug, dexamethasone, came into common use as an anti-inflammatory steroid in the 1950s. Oxygen therapy became popular in the 19th century, as did the prophylactic of mask-wearing.

File photo: Coronavirus. Photo: Centre for Disease Control and Prevention via Unsplash

While the much needed and welcomed vaccines for Covid-19 are new, the methodology of some of them remains based on Edward Jenner’s vaccine for smallpox of 1796. Vaccination in turn drew on ideas of variolation that had been in existence for centuries. Thus, while modern medicines are often framed as new, they often survive as old therapies. 

Acknowledging the anxiety around the question of old and new in medicine, I suggest we look beyond China and Hong Kong to better understand Chinese medicine’s international reception. In the East Asian region, closely related to Chinese medicine, Korean medicine continues to enjoy both popularity and prestige in South Korea. Eschewing an East-West binary, traditional therapies sit comfortably within a high-tech, science-focused community.

In similarly sophisticated Japan, Kampo (traditional medicine) also maintains its popularity and respect. Likewise, in Singapore and Taiwan, the state includes Chinese medicine within their respective educational and administrative purviews. Further south, the Australian Federal Government includes Chinese medicine within its regulatory purview in terms of education and clinical practice.

In the US, the National Institutes of Health spend considerable federal funds to employ researchers to better understand Chinese medicine. Prestigious medical institutions such as Johns Hopkins, Memorial Sloan Kettering, the Cleveland Clinic, UCLA, Harvard University and more, host programmes in both Chinese medicine research and practice. In short, Chinese medicine is more than the form we may know of in China and Hong Kong. It has already grown into a global medical phenomenon, with bodies such as the World Health Organisation working to better understand it.

I began this piece with the problem of Chinese medicine and Covid-19. While China suffered early from Covid-19, in March 2020 South Korea had the second-highest case rate in the world. While China came to use Chinese medicine only after weeks of struggling with the inadequacies of Western treatments, the South Korean state also hesitated to use Korean medicine. Bypassing the technocratic state, however, and in response to popular demand, Korean medicine doctors established and operated two telemedicine centres in Daegu and Seoul for Covid-19 patients.

Out of a desire to contribute as best they could, they volunteered their services free and provided free herbal medicines and delivery for all their patients. According to official statistics, 20 per cent of Covid-19 patients in South Korea recovered with Korean medicine. As this is an ongoing crisis, patients clearly could not wait for clinical trials. The urgency of the situation required swift action. To its credit, the South Korean state has not politicised medicine for nationalist purposes during the pandemic. It has chosen instead to highlight its technocratic solutions known as the three Ts – testing, tracing, and treatment.

Probably believing that communities outside of East Asia might not understand Korean medicine, the government just chose to highlight actions easier for people to accept as effective. Rather than nationalism, humility might be a virtue.    

A coronavirus vaccine. File photo: Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for Public Affairs, via Flickr.

The Harvard historian of medicine, Charles Rosenberg, has analysed the rise to authority of Western-medicine doctors in the US in the early 20th century. Their ability to speak as a professional medical authority was not inevitable, but rather can be attributed to the rise of bacteriology and laboratory medicine together with the increasing growth of large state bureaucracies.

Asserting primacy in medicine also meant creating boundaries around healing therapies rooted in other cultures. If 2020 and 2021 have taught us anything, it is that the limitations of Western medicine reveal the possibility of the concomitant usefulness of other medical cultures. Breaking down unnecessary boundaries between East and West requires moving outside conceptual comfort zones. Chinese medicine does not have to be foreign. Just as Western scientific medicine belongs to us all, so do Chinese and Korean medicine. Medicine does not belong to nations but to the global community.


James Flowers is a research fellow at the Kyung Hee University in Seoul. He obtained his PhD in History of Medicine from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.


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