Modern Styles of Chinese Medicine

We tend to think of Chinese medicine as a single practice whereas it is in fact many different and often disparate practices depending on the location, period and people it serves. Here are a few of the major ones around today.

I was initially trained in TCM but have developed an eclectic style since then. My interest in acupuncture developed from wanting to understand how ancient medical systems could have really worked and I persevere with that goal, combining classical ideas with modern systems theories and anthropological models. The principles of my own practice can be found here.

TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine)

TCM is probably the best known style of acupuncture around the world. It was created in the 1950s by the Chinese state, synthesizing the major principles of the various historical styles and stripping them of their religious aspects to suit a modern secular society with busy hospital departments. It views disease as patterns of symptoms grouped into syndromes which it can correct by selecting a prescription of points or herbs that will influence the functioning of the body, returning it to balance.

Its strengths include the flexibility to absorb ideas from both science and history but has been criticised for its tendency to distort both in doing so. Many practitioners have questioned the validity of selecting acupuncture points in the same way as one selects herbs preferring the more bodywork centred practices of earlier "classical" styles.

TCM in Chinese

Five Elements

This was the first style of acupuncture to be brought to the UK by J.R. Worsley in the 1950s before TCM was widely known. It is the opposite of TCM, finding a spiritual dimension to every problem that revolves around finding out what 'element' a person belongs to and balancing it against the others, similar to the old western humoural system.

Since this style was developed mainly in the west during the 60s it suits some western audiences well, especially the 'New Age' and people seeking psychotherapy with a twist, but its quite limited in its scope if you and has no model for herbal medicine.

Five Phase Diagram

Classical Chinese Medicine

This is a term used to refer to people who have gone back to reconstruct the practices from classical sources, many of which were eliminated when China developed its state sponsored TCM system. The most noticeable difference is the degree of attention paid to each system separately. Classical acupuncture is more like bodywork where symptoms guide the practitioner to a broad area of the body which is then observed and palpated for tangible signs to be treated and checked for results. Classical herbal prescriptions are also based on a few broad families of formulas that are then carefully adjusted based on the appearance of specific symptoms.

Individual interpretations have their own strengths and weaknesses. At its best it applies all the wisdom of Chinese philosophy in a practical fashion and at worst rigidly adheres outdated beliefs and practices. They tend to be more intense treatments but also more time consuming. Instead of following one interpretation I have looked into several sources and read translations of the classics myself to inspire my practice.

"Medicine" in old script

Medical Acupuncture

This is based solely on experimental evidence and western anatomical models and so is mainly used for temporary pain relief by physiotherapists, doctors, oesteopaths and chiropractors. It is sometimes referred to as "dry needling" to specify that it is just needling, without injecting any fluids or "trigger point therapy" when inert substances such as saline are injected into the point. It is devoid of the traditional context associated with acupuncture although it is not uncommon for them to use traditional point names for reference and traditional point combinations as a basis for their experimental designs.

This reduced form has the ironic status of claiming to be the most scientific and most stripped of oriental context while the hard science data on acupuncture suggests it is precisely these changes in lifestyle which acupuncture facilitates that make up most of the long term positive effects and enable it to help a variety of people. As a result this style is only useful for short term pain relief in muskuloskeletal conditions.

Trigger Point Injection

Other Systems

There are also a host of other styles in practice today such as:
  • geographical styles like Japanese, Korean or Vietnamese
  • microsystems focusing on one part of the body such as ear, hand or scalp acupuncture
  • individual masters' lineages like those of Jeffrey Yuen, Dr. Manaka, Dr. Tan and Master Tung
  • specialist areas of treatment like the NADA addiction protocol or cosmetic facial acupuncture
Most of these are based on the same theories as the models above but have alternative protocols, point selections or stimulation intensity. Most acupuncturists will draw from whichever schools they have learned from and seem appropriate to the situation.