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April 15, 2024

Products of Medicinal Culture

Processes of the body are learned through a combination of direct experiences and formal education shaped by the culture we’re raised within. As the latter becomes more intellectualized we are – socially, spiritually, politically – naturalized to specific expectations of our human condition.

A Daoist Evolution of Health
During the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC) Daoism began its initial rise in popularity, blending religion and science through observation of the Dao – the way of life as told by patterns of the natural world.

The Dao Jia Yi Xue (Daoist Medicine Doctrine), emerged during this period – tying longevity and immortality to spiritual enlightenment. This heavily motivated the advancement of medicinal disease prevention and clinical effectiveness of doctors at the time further endowed the growing faith with living proof that dualities of spiritual and physical health were actively entangled, and coinspiring.

The cultivation of “gong”, self-healing towards the motivation of enlightenment, drew threads connecting how long one lived with how well one lived. However, the emphasis on a good life through good action was not limited to the benefit of any individual. Because of the reciprocal influence between one’s environment and one’s vitality (known as Feng Shui) the effect one was able to impart to their surroundings shaped a comprehensive approach to community aid. This holistic value ensured sociological healing through public health measures at the same level of priority as medicinal remedies prescribed to a single person. A great example of this work is seen through the legacy of Sun Si Mao and the revolutionary medicine of the “barefoot doctors” during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

On Microcosm and Macrocosm
Daoist health measures uplifted aging as all aging became superimposed and conjoined with enlightenment. The Huang Di Nei Jing is another fundamental source from the Daoist Medicine Doctrine. The first text of the pair, named Su Wen (translated as “Basic Questions”) covers theoretical foundations of health through a dialogue between the Yellow Emperor and one of his physicians Qi Bo. They outline what healthy aging looks like by seven-year cycles by the very first chapter;

In [bodies with ovaries], at the age of seven, the qi of the kidneys abound. The [first] teeth are substituted and the hair grows long. With two times seven, the heaven gui arrives, the controlling vessel is passable and the great thoroughfare vessel abounds [with qi]. The monthly affair moves down in due time and, hence, [pregnancy is possible]. With three times seven, the qi of the kidneys has reached its normal level. Hence, the wisdom teeth emerge and [adolescents] grow to their full size. With four times seven, the sinews and bones are firm and the hair has grown to its full extent. The body and the limbs are in a state of abundance and strength. With five times seven, the yang brilliance vessel weakens; the face begins to dry out; the hair begins to fall off. With six times seven, the three yang vessels weaken [in the upper sections]. The face is all parched, the hair begins to turn white. With seven times seven, the controlling vessel is depleted and the great thoroughfare vessel is weak and [its contents are] diminished. The heaven gui is exhausted. The way of the earth is impassable. Hence, the physical appearance is spoilt and [pregnancy is no longer possible] (Su Wen 1-4-4).

Note: that there is a similar passage which follows, outlining the arrival, growth, and waning of qi within bodies with testes – but it has been excluded for brevity. The most notable difference is that while bodies with ovaries cycle qi in seasons of seven years, bodies with testes are said to cycle in seasons of 8 years. This is a vast generalization but looking at contemporary averages of menarche and menopause in the US (12, 49) compared to this historical record (14, 51) shows only slight deviation through generations of time passing, across many cultural and ecological shifts.

The unique delivery within this writing evolved shamanistic interpretations of health from the period before into functional relationships held by our internal landscape through a didactic play of curiosity and conclusion. Huang Di Nei Jing and other doctrinal texts from this legacy period hold that the importance of our bodies’ survival is to function long enough to sustain the population at a thriving level – towards our best attempts at immortality. Through this, the concept of longevity exists beyond any sole individual or single family’s lifeline, and qualifies the collective community’s progress toward enlightenment. From this, a lineage of physical care and precaution became distilled from spiritual practice, developing medicinal methodology and deepening adherence to both spiritual and medical expertise now conjoined in praxis.

Preventative Care and Honoring System of Our Bodies
Daoist influence on the cultural medicine of TCM imparts a teaching of preventative care. Exploring how to best avoid disease through observation often starts with the identification of cycling elemental forces, organs, meridians, and bodily fluid.

Throughout early Chinese texts, reproductive systems need both an internal and external balance. “Tian gui”, one’s heavenly waters – the material basis for menstrual blood or sperm production – can only be excreted when there is an abundance of Kidney qi, and a harmony of Kidney Yin/Yang. The abundance of qi that arrives through puberty enables the Chong and Ren to properly fill and function. When Chong and Ren are effective, ovulation and menstruation can occur healthily without triggering disease symptoms and dysfunction repair within the body. In this way we see western medicine’s endocrinology as an interplay between primarily Kidney qi, Tian Gui, Chong (Extraordinary Vessel) and Zi Gong (Uterus).

The Nan Jing, canonical text of “difficult issues”, observes the progression from a lack of regularity across menses to amenorrhea, corresponding spectrum of worsening stagnation symptoms:

If the Chong is diseased, the qi will counterflow and in the interior there will be tension [or cramping]. If the Conception [Vessel] is diseased, internally there will be the bitterness of binding… In other words, one’s qi and blood flow will be like a broad river which no longer flows with any power or force. [The person with a uterus] will have conglomerations and gatherings. When the belt vessel is diseased, there is abdominal fullness, low back broadness [i.e. lack of strength]… This is what happens when the extraordinary channel [is] diseased (Nan 29).

Any stagnation of blood can affect the health of the menstrual cycle. Reflexively, the regularity and potency of menstruation/ovulation is a key indicator of one’s internal health and vitality at large. Our blood calls for additional support while recovering troublesome environments like; exposure to cold, nutrient deficient diets, long-standing qi deficiency, emotional disturbances and trauma.

While Chinese medicine has recognized emotional disturbances at the root of physical disease since the time of the Taoist Medicine Doctrine, acknowledging the long-term effects of stress on the body (and its genetic legacy) is a relatively recent achievement by Western medicine. With Adverse Childhood Event (ACE) analysis, there is now a structure to reflect the impact of emotional disturbances on one’s limbic system and midbrain structures (responsible for processing and sensory integration). Injury to the hypothalamus in particular reflects through symptoms like disappearance of menstruation, and other abnormal bleeding patterns which could lead to miscarriage and infertility.

Health education serves to aid our biological preparedness to age and access to resources to live well. The ecology of Chinese medicine as a descendant of Daoist medical tradition contrasts mechanistic elements of western medical science like surgery, x-ray technology, and extractive testing to identify and localize. It is inevitable that processes of survival shape outcomes of culture – even our medicinal culture. Because of the networked intimacy of wellness and disease pronounced by the Dao, wounds felt by our spiritual/emotional bodies are understood to naturally manifest across physical properties. And likewise, responsive care is called for across broad spectrums.

About the Author

Wana holding a potted squash

Wana is a second year master’s student at AIMC with groundwork practice in reproductive and public health. They connect to East Asian Medicine through an ancestral root, and believe that land-based indigenous medicines deserve the privilege to supplement or substitute western care practices as conduits of more intimate contemporary healing.

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