Can traditional Chinese medicine be a solution to pollution?

TCM Explained is a series in which experts and practitioners break down the inner workings of traditional Chinese medicine, in their own words.

From a Chinese medical perspective, the lungs are one of the most delicate organ systems in the body – so much so that they have been called Jiao Zangor “delicate organ”, since the 12th century AD

The role the lungs play in atmospheric design Qi in the body makes them particularly vulnerable to damage. A Qing dynasty medical scholar wrote:[The Lungs] are opposed to cold, heat, dryness and humidity; and most fear fire and wind.


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Today, the Lungs face a new, even more pernicious enemy: wumai (雾霾), the smog that has hit China hard year-round in recent decades.

A classmate of mine at Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, from Hebei Province, doesn’t even remember hearing that word as a child. Now, as factories move away from Beijing and closer to its hometown, wumai has become almost universal.

Documentary by investigative journalist Chai Jing under the dome, which went viral in 2015, marked a turning point in public debate about wumai. Although Chinese citizens have been accustomed to breathing in smog for years, Chai’s documentary traced its structural causes and revealed the extent of the damage pollution can cause to the millions of people who inhale it daily. The Chinese government has since taken steps to reduce smog. A recent study by researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, however, suggests that the danger remains: each year, an average of 1.1 million people die prematurely from causes related to air pollution. Many more are falling ill and many of these people are turning to Chinese medicine for treatment.


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Fighting wumai with Chinese medicine starts with understanding what smog is. For many doctors, this means not only reading the scientific research determining the particulate components of smog, but also going back to classical Chinese texts. (A mentor explains to me that the value of these lies in their universal applicability: one can use old works such as the Yellow Emperor Inner Cannon to understand anything in the world.)

This perspective applies to contemporary Chinese medical interpretations of smog: many physicians translate between the wumai and terms for pathogenic qi – wind, heat, cold, damp, dryness, fire, poison, plague – which form the framework of Chinese medical pathology. A group of doctors based at the University of Chinese Medicine in Beijing suggests that smog includes a mixture of wet qi, toxic qi and dry qi, which produce a dangerous combination of heat, poison, phlegm and stagnation in the lungs of affected patients.


Translation and Condensation: Reflections on Qi

Chen Dongmei and Wang Xinpei of the Chinese Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences and Beijing University of Chinese Medicine argue instead that the spleen is at least partly responsible. They classify smog-induced pharyngitis as a case of wow, or “throat obstruction,” in which dampness produced by a weakened spleen and stomach combines with cloudy, smoggy damp qi to produce phlegm and inflammation in the throat. From each assessment of the Chinese medical composition of smog derives a different strategy and prescription chosen from the hundreds preserved in the classical texts.

Simply put, there is no Chinese medical consensus on how to treat smog-related illnesses. This is often the case, however, in a world where physicians pull together conventional resources to develop knowledge and treatments for diseases that emerge through the biomedical lens.

But plurality has its advantages: if one doctor’s treatment does not work, a patient can find a second doctor with a different interpretation of wumai, and a third, and so on, finally settling for a translation that sticks. .

Wumai also illuminates a major challenge facing contemporary Chinese medicine: how can Chinese medicine adapt to a world that is obviously rapidly deteriorating?


Digital diagnosis: Chinese medicine in the era of WeChat

theYellow Emperor Inner Cannon a fundamental text of Chinese medicine – describes how in the ancient past people lived in harmony with the Way of Heaven, while today people live with indulgence and irresponsibility, causing irreparable damage to their bodies. He explains that one must live in phase with the gradual passage of the seasons, adapting to the uninterrupted cycle of spring, summer, autumn and winter; birth, development, gathering and storage. Disease occurs when humans and the natural world lose their rhythm.


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Our increasingly sweltering summers, our unfreezing winters, the smog clinging to our throats, all point to a new degree of disharmony. As human industrial activity distorts the seasons and puts our bodies at risk, what will it take to keep us – and our world – feeling good?