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  • Writer's picturePhilip Niño Tan-Gatue

The Elemental Language of Chinese Medicine

Much has been discussed with regards to the use of elemental language in acupuncture and Chinese Medicine.  To proponents, it seems to be a cause for unnecessary apologetics; to skeptics, a seeming weak link through which to try to break the chain of credibility.  I humbly hope that my two cents on this topic might demonstrate how this should not be the case.

I would describe elemental language in this case as the use of descriptions of processes and elements from nature to try to define and characterize medical phenomenon.  This reflects a different habit of culture that orientals have as opposed to occidentals.  Hence we find a lot of words such as fire, cold, wind and dampness used in Chinese medical jargon.

What cultural nuance is at work here? Let us first acknowledge that English, on the one hand, is a dynamic language that borrows a ton if words from predecessor languafes such as Greek or Latin.  If a new term is needed, tradition would suggest borrowing a word or modifying or combining words from other languages.  Thus we have words like telephone and television to describe words and pictures transmitted over a distance.

The Chinese language had no such luxury.  I am not a linguist so i could be wrong, but i have observed that when Chinese need to coin a new term they also may combine old words  (the word for telephone literally is two words meaning “electric” and “spoken word”) or use a term from nature or some other common phenomenon.  This is because, I think, Chinese doesn’t have the habit of using foreign terms, especially more so in ancient times.

Imagine then, a person with an infection.  Imagine a badly treated wound.  The area around it woukd be swollen, reddish, warm, painful to the touch and possibly filled with pus or necrotic material giving off some putrid smell.  This would be called Fire with Heat Toxin.  Western medicine would describe the same process as “inflammation”.  Note that inflammation comes from the root word flame.

Hence instead of describing a phenomenon as being red, warm, swollen and painful, we would just relate it to an everyday phenomenon that everyone recognizes.  In this case, it is Heat and Fire.

What if then, a person suffers from muscle cramping, tightness, and the muscle is cold to the touch? How would the ancient people describe it? If you answered “cold” you are correct.

Then, we ask, what about a dull heavy pain? May i suggest dampness?

We could go on.

The point here is that we should not literally believe that there is a literal cold invading the muscles.  The word cold describes the observed condition.  We should look at the language the way the ancients would.

I hope this helps a bit.  Have a nice day.

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