2 minute read

Medicine in China


Biomedicine had little influence on health care in China until after 1949. At that point there were too few qualified personnel to provide basic medical care for the whole population. The government of the People's Republic organized a network of schools to train doctors of traditional Chinese medicine (Zhongyi) and a system of modern medical schools. Both trained secondary-school graduates. The Cultural Revolution, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, brought the two closer as those in power demanded that physicians in each sector be trained more than negligibly in the other. This demand also incorporated in the curricula of the TCM schools modern subjects such as anatomy and biochemistry. The government's policy of pushing for synthesis led to textbook interpretations of the old functional discourse in new frameworks close to Western anatomical, lesion-centered views.

The basic education of physicians in imperial China was a matter of memorizing, and learning to apply the methods of reasoning and treatment in classical writings. But by 1980, few secondary-school graduates learned to read classical Chinese. The classics necessarily played a small part in their medical courses, and their confidence in the use of such traditional concepts as qi, yin and yang, and the five phases lessened. By 1980 symptom-based diagnosis that drew on biomedical concepts had become common among young practitioners. Therapy increasingly added to traditional remedies both standard packaged formulas and biomedical drugs. By 2000, medical-school teachers and their pupils were using many styles of synthesis involving traditional and modern medicine—recapitulating the diversity of medical reasoning and practice in previous centuries.


Furth, Charlotte. A Flourishing Yin: Gender in China's Medical History, 960–1665. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. On medical care for women and childbirth, with a chapter on women as healers.

Keegan, David. "Huang-ti nei-ching: The Structure of the Compilation, the Significance of the Structure." Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1988.

Lloyd, Geoffrey, and Nathan Sivin. The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.

Scheid, Volker. Chinese Medicine in Contemporary China: Plurality and Synthesis. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002. Important, well-informed study.

Sivin, Nathan. Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China: A Partial Translation of Revised Outline of Chinese Medicine (1972); with an Introductory Study on Change in Present-day and Early Medicine. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Center for Chinese Studies, 1987.

Nathan Sivin

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mathematics to Methanal trimerMedicine in China - Literature, Doctrines, Therapy, Modernization, Bibliography