Hong Kong’s highly internationalized universities are being swept up in a broader drive to lend academic legitimacy to traditional Chinese medicine on the world stage through evidence-based research.
The biggest milestone is a HK$500m (£46m) allocation for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in the Hong Kong government’s 2021 budget. This sum will help finance the construction of the city’s first Chinese medicine hospital, which is scheduled to open in 2025 under the auspices of the Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU).
“There are people who see Chinese medicine as something traditional and maybe not as valid. We want to elevate it,” said Alexander Wai, who took over as HKBU vice-chancellor earlier this year. “We want to transform academic disciplines like Chinese medicine with the application of technology.
“There is no future in limiting the subjects you can teach. We want to internationalize Chinese medicine.
Bian Zhaoxiang, who is associate vice president (Chinese medicine development) at HKBU, said the hospital would enable better quality control and research focused on Chinese medicine, describing Hong Kong as a “unique place”. combining both Chinese knowledge and global universities. .
“We hope to create a platform to introduce TCM to the world,” Professor Bian said.
Traditional Chinese healing – including the use of herbs, minerals and animal products, as well as practices such as acupuncture – has been used for centuries in Hong Kong and is part of daily life. The city has about 10,000 practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, as well as 15,000 doctors trained in conventional or Western medicine.
However, the field of traditional Chinese medicine only received recognition from the Hong Kong government after the end of British colonial rule in 1997.
The following year, the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) opened schools of Chinese medicine. In 1999, HKBU became the first university in Hong Kong to offer publicly funded undergraduate degrees in Chinese Medicine and Pharmacy, with HKU and CUHK adding similar programs a few years later.
HKU is now seeking government approval for a new laboratory complex to support its six undergraduate medical programs, one of which focuses on Chinese therapies.
There are parallel developments in Macao, another Chinese special administrative region a short ferry ride from Hong Kong. Shortly after the city’s transition from Portuguese to Chinese rule in 1999, the University of Science and Technology of Macau opened a faculty of Chinese medicine and an undergraduate program in 2000, while the University of Macao established an Institute of Chinese Medical Sciences in 2002.
In mainland China, there have long been universities and institutes dedicated to traditional Chinese medicine, in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing and Guangzhou.
The field received a boost of mainstream recognition in 2015 when Tu Youyou became the first Chinese national to win a Nobel Prize in Medicine, for her discovery of artemisinin, a malaria treatment based on an extract of Chinese herbs.
In May this year, Tsinghua University launched the Beijing Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine, an interdisciplinary research center bringing together different departments for “Chinese medicine innovation and development”.
In addition to government initiatives, medical practitioners have advocated for a more holistic approach to the field. In June, experts published a letter in the Hong Kong Medical Journal calling for greater integration between the two types of medical disciplines.
“[Traditional Chinese medicine] practitioners have an important role to play in sharing the health burden in the current Covid-19 pandemic,” they write, adding that “the role of discipline is limited and must be deliberate and acknowledged.”
Ellis Kam Lun Hon, co-author of this letter and honorary clinical professor at the Institute of Integrative Medicine at CUHK, said that “teaching and research in this field are crucial, in order to give it credibility”.
He warned that popular use of traditional Chinese medicine or herbal medicine alone, without professional scientific oversight or evidence-based research, could lead to “dangerous pseudoscience”.
Dr Hon, who is trained in conventional medicine, also stressed the need for “integrative medicine, which means something that is not exclusively Chinese or Western medicine, but a combination of both”.
He noted that Canada, Germany, Australia and other countries are also developing their own areas of herbal medicine.
Around the world, academia is increasingly open to incorporating indigenous wisdom. Arctic researchers have called for increased funding and recognition of indigenous knowledge, especially in understanding the local environment. Indigenous research in Australia and New Zealand is also growing in importance.