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Table of Contents
Year : 2019  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 84-87

Traditional Chinese medicine: How is it An Invaluable Intangible Cultural Heritage

Postgraduate English Teaching Department, Foreign Languages School, Anhui University of Technology, Maanshan, Anhui, China

Date of Web Publication19-Jun-2019

Correspondence Address:
Assoc. Prof. Anwen Zheng
Postgraduate English Teaching Department, Foreign Languages School, Anhui University of Technology, Maanshan, Anhui
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_1_19

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This article deals with the concept of intangible culture heritage and the reasons why traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) should be specially preserved. The potential value of TCM and the existing measures for carrying on the cultural heritage adopted by China are also explored in the article.

Keywords: Intangible culture heritage, traditional Chinese medicine, value, laws and regulations

How to cite this article:
Zheng A. Traditional Chinese medicine: How is it An Invaluable Intangible Cultural Heritage. Chin Med Cult 2019;2:84-7

How to cite this URL:
Zheng A. Traditional Chinese medicine: How is it An Invaluable Intangible Cultural Heritage. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2019 [cited 2019 Nov 12];2:84-7. Available from: http://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2019/2/2/84/260702

  Introduction Top

With the unprecedented rapidity of modern medical development, some people challenge the necessity to preserve traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) preservation, claiming that TCM does not meet the scientific criteria and should, therefore, be marginalized in today's medical system. Although their opinion sounds rather reasonable under the backdrop of the increasing dominance of science in the medical community, yet one point cannot be neglected, namely, TCM is not only an important branch of China's immense medical health service, but also an invaluable intangible cultural heritage with a history of more than 2000 years. The value of an intangible cultural heritage cannot be measured before we take the subsequent factors into consideration: national culture identity, sustainable development, and the harmony between nature and humankind. The potential value of intangible cultural heritage can fully justify why TCM should be specially protected.

  The Concept of Intangible Cultural Heritage Top

The concept of intangible cultural heritage originated in Japan after World War II when the country made her utmost to establish the new image of Japan. Historically, Japanese culture was heavily influenced by ancient China whose cultural elements, even today, can be easily seen in almost all aspects of Japanese daily life, ranging from chopsticks on dinner table to the architecture of Kiyomizu Temple (清水寺) in Kyoto (京都). Furthermore, TCM can find its counterpart in Japanese culture, that is, the so-called Kampo medicine (汉方医学).

The second half of the 20th century witnessed Japan's economic rise; almost at the same time, Japanese traditional culture had to confront the ever-increasing impact of American culture. Average Japanese, especially the young generation, were so fascinated by American popular culture that, in the 1950s, American movies, foods, popular songs, and clothes were found everywhere in this island country, and it seemed that no one was interested in cultures peculiar of Japan. Japanese national culture was being eroded by the alien culture. Because of its uniqueness, a nation's culture actually serves as a nation's identity, and it is difficult to imagine a nation whose culture is indistinguishable. It was for that reason that the first law to protect the intangible cultural heritage was enacted by Japan in 1950, in which the term “intangible cultural heritage (无形文化财产)” was presented for the first time. After that, great efforts had been made not only by Japanese governments at all levels, but also by numerous nongovernment organizations (NGOs) to protect the traditional Japanese cultures and such efforts turned out to be very successful. Japan set a good example for other countries such as Korea and China to take similar measures in their traditional cultures' protection. Japan's remarkable achievements in safeguarding the traditional culture finally caught the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's attention, who proposed the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and in the year 2003, this convention was passed and signed by 175 countries, including China, a country with abundant cultural heritage.

According to the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, the concept of intangible cultural heritage can be defined as “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.”[1]

Similarly, Chinese scholars also put forward the definition of intangible cultural heritage, known as nonphysical cultural heritage in Mandarin. Yuan Li (苑利2009), for example, in his book Nonphysical Cultural Heritage (《非物质文化遗产》)co-authored with Gu Jun(顾军), describes intangible cultural heritage as: “knowledges, skills, cultural events handed down, in active state, generation by generation with universal value in the studies of history, arts, cultures, science, society, which can best represent the local features.”[2]

Theoretically, TCM consists of an immense body of knowledge, mainly derived from ancient Chinese philosophy like Yin Yang (阴阳) and Wu Xing (五行); in addition, the unique therapies of TCM are also skills with cultural characteristics of China, handed down from our ancestors. There is, therefore, every reason for us to regard TCM as an intangible cultural heritage.

  The Potential Value of Traditional Chinese Medicine Top

The potential value of TCM falls into the following three parts:

The applied value in medical practice

Unlike other intangible cultural heritage, TCM, as an important supplementary medical procedure, is still in use in China's current health system. As a result, people tend to make a comparison between the curative effects of modern medicine and TCM. Compared with TCM, modern medicine that benefits directly from the rapidly developing modern science and technology has the distinct advantages in most cases except chronic diseases that well respond and sometimes even yield to the treatment of TCM, which can account for why people's opinions split as to the issue whether TCM should be preserved or abolished.

Furthermore, when it comes to the applied value of TCM, one cannot turn a blind eye to the value of ancient TCM prescriptions recorded in TCM classics [Figure 1], which have been left untouched for many years and can be recalled to life in current application if they are well protected and fully developed as Prof. Tu Youyou(屠呦呦), winner of Nobel Prize of physiology and medicine for 2015, did in her studyto extract artemisinin. Ancient TCM prescriptions represent the collective wisdom of Chinese ancestors in their medical practice, but many of these prescriptions are still in a state of dormancy. If no effective measures are taken to preserve such a precious legacy, it is not inconceivable that those prescriptions will, with the passage of time, fade away in history.
Figure 1: The statue of Zhang Zhongjing(张仲景)

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The theoretical value in sustainable development

Industrial revolution that flourished in the 18th century, on the one hand, remarkably enhanced human being's capacity to make use of natural resources, but posed an ever-increasing threat to the human ecosystem's equilibrium on the other hand. Over the past 200-odd years, the relationship between humankind and ecosystem has been worsened to such a degree that resource utilization approaches, to which people are so accustomed, have to be reconsidered. How do people strike a balance between the infiniteness of human material desire and the finiteness of natural resources? It is not only a question about natural resources, but also the future of this planet, which has caused many to be deep in thought. Although this question remains unanswered, human being, who is confronted with the burden of the ever-expanding population, cannot slow down his/her pace in resource exploitation.

It is self-evident that the current situation is a dilemma, which seems to be intractable and defy any quick solution. Under this circumstance, there appears a new concept, namely, sustainable development, which, according to Wikipedia, means “the organizing principle for meeting human development goals while at the same time sustaining the ability of natural systems to provide the natural resources and ecosystem services upon which the economy and society depend…. While the modern concept of sustainable development is derived mostly from the 1987 Brundtland Report, it is also rooted in earlier ideas about sustainable forest management and the twentieth century environmental concerns.”[3]

As a matter of fact, the concept of sustainable development, though put forward by developed nations, has its clue in the traditional culture of China, the biggest developing nation. The idea of Tian Ren He Yi (天人合一 or human is an integral part of nature), was initially raised by Confucius (551 BC–479 BC) and enriched and developed by other Confucians, like Dong Zhongshu (董仲舒 179 BC–104 BC) and Zhu Xi (朱熹1130 AD–1200 AD) to meet the interpretation requirements of their own philosophies. Dong Zhong Shu proposed his idea of Tian Ren Gan Ying (天人感应 or correspondence between man and nature), and Zhu Xi, a well-known exponent of Neo-Confucianism in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 AD–1279 AD), viewed Tian Li (天理 or nature principles) as the top moral standards for people who believed in Confucianism. The so-called Tian Li can be roughly interpreted as the course of nature, or from a moral angle, the natural justice.

Tian (天) in traditional Chinese philosophy cannot be simply translated as “sky” or “heaven” in English, and in fact, it is not easy to find an appropriate counterpart in any other European languages because of its polysemy. Both the universe and the nature can be referred to as Tian, and they are, in some way, isomorphic concepts.

Furthermore, Tian Ren He Yi has been viewed as one of the fundamental principles of TCM in its diagnosis and therapy, which was particularly stressed in the TCM classical book, Huang Di Nei Jing (《黄帝内经》 The Yellow Emperor's Canon of Internal Medicine). For example, together with Wu Xing, Yin and Yang that are described as two kinds of Qi, are interlinked with human body and pervade the nature so that nature and human make up a big organic system. (天地之间, 六合之内, 其气九州, 九窍, 五脏, 十二节, 皆通乎天气《黄帝内经·生气通天论》). Consequently, we have no other choice but to observe the natural laws whether in medical therapy or in health care; otherwise, both our health and life span will be adversely affected (数犯此者, 则邪气伤人, 此寿命之本也 《黄帝内经·生气通天论》).

Today, the concept of Tian Ren He Yi, which has gone far beyond the domains of traditional philosophy and medicine, is frequently used by conservationists to emphasize the significance of natural resources' preservation. This antique oriental concept, upheld by ancient China's philosophy, is the best explanation of the attitudes adopted by Chinese toward the relationship between humankind and nature. Human, according to this theory, is not the master of nature but an organic component like millions of other creatures living on this planet. Logically, human does not have the right to deplete the earth of its natural resources just for his/her own sake, for he/she is not the sole owner.

The value in national culture representation

Like it or not, the world is undergoing a profound globalization that can be dated back to as early as the 15th century when the great European navigators like Magellan(麦哲伦) and Columbus(哥伦布) embarked on their ways to the “Great Discovery of Geography (地理大发现).” Before Magellan's circumnavigation of the earth, it is believed that the main civilizations on this planet presumably occurred and evolved in isolation. Therefore, national cultures of various kinds could maintain their distinctive features that could represent their national identities. Globalization does not mean that all the national cultures can be exchanged on equal terms; instead, national cultures of Western countries, especially the United States, have a dominant influence on many national cultures of developing countries, and the diversity of cultures has been actually put in jeopardy.

National culture, to a large extent, can be regarded as the symbol of the nation's identity. Features of national countries, if not protected by people with effective measures, may be gradually eroded and eventually eradicated.

Then, how do peoples safeguard their own cultures under the background of alien cultures' impact caused by the rapidly developing pace of globalization? In other words, how do peoples keep their national cultural identities without being forgotten? One feasible solution to the above questions is a perfect preservation of the intangible cultural heritage you have because intangible cultural heritage can act as the best vehicle with which to carry cultural genes, which is decisive to maintain global cultural diversity.

TCM has been viewed as a brilliant facet of Chinese culture, and comprehensive and effective protection of such a precious legacy can highlight the distinguishing features of our culture and nation and, therefore, strengthen the national's identity.

  China's Efforts to Intangible Cultural Heritage Sustain Top

China has had a tradition to protect her cultural heritage since ancient times. A good case in point is Shi Jing (《诗经》The Book of Songs), the first anthology of verse in the history of Chinese literature. Government officials were dispatched among the people throughout the country in the spring and the autumn periods (770 BC–476 BC) to collect excellent verses and compiled the book.

Now, the Chinese government is making great efforts [Figure 2] and [Figure 3] to preserve the nation's culture and has made remarkable achievements in many aspects of intangible cultural heritage protection, including the inheritance and development of TCM.
Figure 2: Traditional Chinese Medicine University

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Figure 3: Traditional Chinese Medicine Museum

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The completion of laws and regulations

A sound system of laws and regulations respecting the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage has been gradually established in China since the beginning of the reform and opening in 1978.

Above all, in explicit terms, the Constitution of the People's Republic of China stipulates that “The state protects sites of scenic and historical interest, valuable cultural monuments and relics and other significant items of China's historical and cultural heritage (Article 22, Constitution of the People's Republic of China).” Furthermore, Article 21 also makes it clear that “The state develops medical and health services, promotes modern medicine and Traditional Chinese medicine.”[4] The two articles of the constitution lays a solid foundation, based on which a large number of laws and regulations have been made to protect TCM and other intangible cultural heritages. The domestic laws and regulations, together with some international conventions signed by China, has constituted a rather complete legal system for cultural heritage protection.

Traditional Chinese Medicine items in intangible cultural heritage list

On February 25, 2011, Intangible Cultural Heritage Law of the People's Republic of China was ratified at the 19th Session of the Standing Committee of the 11th National People's Congress, and according to the law, investigations should be conducted by local governments to assess the value of TCM as intangible cultural heritage, and the selected TCM items should be inscribed on the heritage list for special preservation. Up till now, there have been 23 items of TCM admitted into the national list of intangible cultural heritage. On the whole, effective measures are being taken by Chinese governments at all levels, together with many NGOs, to protect TCM, an invaluable intangible cultural heritage.

Financial support and sponsorship

This study was financially supported by the Humanities and Social Sciences Research Project of Anhui Province (SK2018A0060).

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

The Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Available from: https://www.ich.unesco.org/en/convention. [Last accessed on 2018 Dec 31].  Back to cited text no. 1
Gu Jun YL. Nonphysical Cultural Heritage. Beijing: High Education Press; 2009. p. 12.  Back to cited text no. 2
Sustainable Development. Available from: https://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainable_development. [Last accessed on 2019 Jan 01].  Back to cited text no. 3
Article 21, 22 of The Constitution of People's Republic of China. Available from: http://www.fgk.mof.gov.cn/law/getOneLawInfoAction.do?law_id=72491. [Last accessed on 2019 Jan 08].  Back to cited text no. 4


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3]


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