Comparing Chinese and Western Medicine – Part 2


  • Foundational concepts in Chinese Medicine come from Daoism and Confucianism. They are that reality is unity, that this unity can be experienced but not described, and that fundamental processes can be seen at any scale or in any domain.
  • Consciousness and subjective perception is the only way to truly know the nature of reality.
  • Artificial divisions in the unity of reality are used for intellectual understanding.
  • It is the relationships between these divisions that are important.

In the last post I discussed the basics of how Western science arrives at an understanding of the world. You can read Part 1 here. Now we will look at a different worldview.

The Eastern Perspective

There are foundational assumptions in the system that underlies Chinese Medicine, just as there are these assumptions for the West. The foundational concepts in Chinese Medicine come from Daoism (Taoism) and Confucianism, paraphrased best by the first and well-known section of the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) by Laozi (Lao Tzu) (123). The following are my personal understanding of these foundational concepts, according to my own readings and education:

  • The fundamental nature of reality is unity.
  • This unity can be experienced but not described, as it is beyond all thoughts and concepts.
  • The microcosm mirrors the macrocosm – the same processes can be seen wherever one looks.

These three assumptions are foundational to Classical Chinese Medicine as they inform the various models that have arisen over the centuries to explain the nature of human experience. All of these assumptions go together in creating a coherent theory of how humans “work” and how they fit into the universe. Because nature is unity, and the same processes can be seen anywhere, studying any process in nature informs the understanding of every other process. By studying the stars we can come to know the human body, because they both represent and reflect the same basic principles.

Our subjective perceptions are a part of reality, and there is no concept of an objective reality that is independent of us. And because the ultimate nature of reality can only be experienced, but not conceptualized, our subjective perceptions are the only way to truly grasp the nature of the universe. Thus, human consciousness becomes the main tool to understand how the world works, and the development and refinement of consciousness becomes an important area of focus.

Because of the assumption of unity the Eastern perspective places little value on trying to determine the fundamental properties of things, or objects. The deep understanding is that everything is the same, so there’s no reason to look for the “lowest common denominator” as in Western science. The way to understand the world is to artificially divide unity into manageable parts and then study the interactions that occur between these parts. The first division is between Yin and Yang, separating light and dark, warm and cold, expansive and contractive, etc. However, Yin and Yang exist only in relationship to each other, not to some objective reality. The definitions are fluid. Within a human body, the head is more yang than the feet by a measure of height, because Yang is upwards and Yin is downwards. However, the head could also be seen as more yin than the feet, since Yang is movement while Yin is stillness, and the feet move while the head stays still. The focus of understanding centers on relationships and processes instead of objects.

After the division between Yin and Yang, the interaction between the two produces Qi, which creates three. Further division produces four, metaphorically explained by referencing the four seasons. All processes have a beginning, a flourishing, a decline, and an end, corresponding to spring, summer, fall, and winter, and explained in Chinese Medicine as lesser yang, greater yang, lesser yin, and greater yin. Then comes a five part model using the five phase-elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. A system of six is also commonly used. All these subdivisions of the fundamental unity contain the whole, by definition. The understanding comes from how these different sections of the whole interact with each other. If a researcher wants to understand how being overweight impacts health, they would start by figuring out the relationship that being overweight has to everything else. Perhaps people become overweight when they eat too much. Maybe being overweight is also correlated with not knowing how to cook. Other associations could include digestive issues, emotional trauma, abuse, socioeconomic disadvantages, and more. What emerges is a picture, a pattern of interconnected experiences in the life of someone who is overweight: a small piece of the whole. This is a top-down understanding of reality, where a fundamental unity is broken up into constituent parts and then analyzed.

The problem is when it becomes necessary to understand something at a very deep level of detail. This way of understanding reality isn’t able to subdivide very far, as it becomes far too complex to try and break up the world into such small pieces. To try and understand reality on the level of molecules doesn’t work. The Eastern perspective doesn’t have good methods for investigating the various types of neurotransmitters, or the different vitamins and minerals, and how too much or too little of these substances affect health. Seeing larger patterns of interconnection remains the strength of this approach. But, given how many new substances have entered our world, it may be difficult to categorize all of them according to any of the standard models of Chinese Medicine.

This is Part 2 of a three-part series. Click here to read Part 3.