Introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine

By Dr. Regina Antony
Traditional Chinese medicine is a system of medicine developed in China based on more than 2500 years of traditional Chinese medical practice. It includes various forms of herbal medicines, acupuncture, massage, exercise and dietary therapy. Traditional Chinese Medicine is widely in use in the East Asian countries. It is primarily used as a complementary alternative medicine approach.
One of the basic concepts of TCM is that the body’s vital energy (chi or qi) circulates through channels called meridians that have branches connected to bodily organs and functions.

Ying and Yang

Yin and Yang are ancient Chinese concepts which can be traced back to the Shang dynasty (1600–1100 BCE). They represent two abstract and complementary aspects that every phenomenon in the universe can be divided into. It is a symbol which represents balance. In TCM, good health is believed to be achieved as a result of various balances, including a balance between Yin and Yang.

Concepts of TCM

Qi is something that is defined by five cardinal functions –
– Motivation of all physical processes in the body, especially the circulation of body fluids
– Warming the body
– Defence against external pathogens
– Containment of body fluids
– Transformation of foods, drinks and breath into Qi.

Vacuity of Qi is characterised especially by pale complexion, lassitude of spirit, lack of strength, spontaneous sweating, laziness to speak, indigestion of food, shortness of breath and a pale, enlarged tongue.
Qi is believed to be partially generated from food and drink and partially from air (by breathing). Another considerable part of it is inherited from the parents and will be consumed in the course of life.

Xue can be correlated to blood. Typical symptoms of a lack of Xue are pale-white or withered-yellow complexion, dizziness, flowery vision, palpitations, insomnia, numbness of extremities, pale tongue and fine pulse.

Jinye is usually correlated to body fluids. Its function is to nurture and moisturise the different structures of the body. It is visible in the body as tears, sputum, saliva, gastric juice, joint fluid, sweat, urine etc.

Zang – Fu
These are the organs or structural entities explained in TCM. These organs are not equivalent to anatomical organs. The term ‘Zang’ refers to solid organs that contain vital energy like the heart, liver, spleen, lungs and kidney. ‘Fu’ refers to hollow organs that emit vital energy the small intestine, large intestine, triple warmer, gall bladder, urinary bladder and stomach.

Each Zang is paired with a Fu, and each Zang-Fu pair is assigned to one of the five elemental qualities. These are –

  • Fire – Heart and Small Intestine (and, secondarily, Triple warmer and Pericardium)
  • Earth – Spleen and Stomach
  • Metal – Lung and Large Intestine
  • Water – Kidney and Bladder
  • Wood – Liver and Gallbladder

The Six Pathological Factors (Excesses)

These factors can manifest inside the body without an external cause.
The six pathogenic factors and their characteristic features are –

1. Wind – rapid onset of symptoms, wandering location of symptoms, itching, nasal congestion, “floating” pulse, tremor, paralysis, convulsion.

2. Cold – cold sensations, aversion to cold, relief of symptoms by warmth, watery / clear excreta, severe pain, abdominal pain, contracture / hyper tonicity of muscles, (slimy) white tongue fur, “deep” / “hidden” or “string-like” pulse or slow pulse.

3. Fire / Heat – aversion to heat, high fever, thirst, concentrated urine, red face, red tongue, yellow tongue fur, rapid pulse. 

4. Dampness – sensation of heaviness, sensation of fullness, symptoms of spleen dysfunction, greasy tongue fur, “slippery” pulse.

5. Dryness – dry cough, dry mouth, dry throat, dry lips, nosebleeds, dry skin, dry stools.

6. Summer heat – either heat or mixed damp-heat symptoms.

The pathogenic factors mentioned above can occur as a single entity or in combination of twos; they can also transform from one form to another.


In TCM, there are five major diagnostic methods: inspection, auscultation, olfaction, inquiry, and palpation. These are grouped into “four pillars” of diagnosis, which are Inspection, Auscultation / Olfaction, Inquiry, and Palpation.

1. Inspection primarily focuses on the face and tongue, including analysis of the tongue size, shape, tension, colour and coating, and the absence or presence of teeth marks around the edge.
2. Auscultation refers to listening for particular sounds (such as wheezing).
Olfaction refers to attending to body odour.
3. Inquiry focuses on the “seven inquiries”, which involve asking the person about regularity, severity, or other characteristics of chills, fever, perspiration, appetite, thirst, taste, defecation, urination, pain, sleep, menses and leucorrhoea.
4. Palpation which includes feeling the body for tender A – Shi points, and the palpation of wrist pulses as well as various other pulses, and palpation of the abdomen.


Acupuncture is an ancient science of medicine where fine needles are inserted or placed on vital points of the human body so as to cure or prevent diseases. Stimulation of these specific points balances the vital energy of the body.

Some scholars have explained Acupuncture using neuroscience. Acupuncture points are seen as places where nerves, muscles, and connective tissue can be stimulated. The stimulation increases blood flow, while at the same time triggers the activity of the body’s natural painkillers.

Even though it has not been possible to scientifically prove the existence of energy meridians or points, various studies have suggested that they help in relieving pain in various conditions.

World Health Organization (WHO) in 2003 listed a number of conditions in which they say acupuncture has been proven effective. These include:
High and low blood pressure
Chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
Some gastric conditions, peptic ulcer
Allergic rhinitis
Facial pain
Morning sickness
Rheumatoid arthritis
Tennis elbow
Dental pain
Reducing the risk of stroke
Inducing labour

Other conditions for which the WHO say that acupuncture may help but more evidence is needed include –
Post-operative convalescence
Substance, tobacco and alcohol dependence
Spine pain
Stiff neck
Vascular dementia
Whooping cough
Tourette’s syndrome

Tai Chi

Tai chi is a method involving certain postures, movements, mental concentration, breathing, and relaxation. More than physical movements and postures, Tai chi is an art embracing the body mind and the spirit. The movements can be adapted or practised while walking, standing, or sitting. Tai chi movements, if practised quickly, become a form of combat or self-defence.

Research suggest that practicing Tai chi improves balance and stability in older people and those with Parkinson’s disease, improves muscular strength, reduce pain in knee osteoarthritis, help people cope with fibromyalgia and back pain, improves immunity, promote quality of life and improve mood in people with heart failure.

Chinese Herbal Products

In TCM system, even though plant elements are the most commonly used, other substances of animal, human and mineral origin are also in use. Around 1,00,000 medicinal recipes have been mentioned in ancient Chinese literature and currently around 13,000 recipes are in practice.

Animal parts used in TCM includes cows’ gallstones, hornet’s nest, leeches, scorpion, dried sea horses, horns of antelopes, buffaloes, rhinoceros, deer antlers, testicles of dog, snake bile etc.

TCM mentions the  use of 35 human parts including bones, fingernails, hair, dandruff, earwax, faeces, urine, sweat etc but most of these are no longer in use. Dried human placenta is used in the treatment of infertility, impotency etc.

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