It has been almost three months since my last post, mainly because I have a book on Chinese medicine that I wanted to read and incorporate in this series of posts. It is a comprehensive, scholarly overview of Chinese thoughts on healing and medicine beginning with the Shang Culture (1556-1056 BCE) and continuing up through the Maoist Era (1949-1976 CE). It took me longer to get through the book than I had expected. It is an excellent book; I highly recommend it: Medicine in China: a History of Ideas by Paul U. Unschuld (University of California Press, 1985). The appendix has numerous translations of ancient Chinese medical texts, and Dr. Unschuld has put out another book called Chinese Life Sciences: Introductory Readings in Classical Chinese Medicine (Paradigm Publications, 2005), in which he presents sixty Chinese medical texts with Chinese-English vocabulary and an English translation of each text. I had read through that book first, and its introduction suggested the Medicine in China book for people who wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the concepts. I did not realize how much I had to learn.
I think the deepest impression that I received from Medicine in China corresponds to the experiences that I described in my last post: Chinese medicine is NOT really systematic. There have always been many schools of thought, which have existed simultaneously. The medicine practiced by learned scholars has been very different from the folk remedies found among the peasant population. Unschuld explains this by saying that traditional Chinese thought, in general, has always been syncretistic. Seemingly contradictory systems of thought exist side-by-side in the culture, and over the centuries, average Chinese people seem to have developed a habit of picking and choosing which method or concept best meets the specific need at this moment in time. The best example is the multitude of philosophies that have existed in and influenced Chinese life since antiquity. The main three are Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, but there are also the Legalists and other schools of thought that resurface time and again throughout history. Fung Yu-Lan’s A History of Chinese Thought (Princeton University Press, 1952) gives a comprehensive survey of the various schools of philosophy and how they have influenced one another and Chinese society over the centuries. Such a mindset is very different from our emphasis on the RIGHT WAY to do things or view things in the West. We tend to think there is only one way. According to Unschuld, the Chinese historically seem to have preferred a variety of options, and are comfortable with more than one way, as long as none of the methods harms anyone.
In the earliest days of the Shang Culture (1556-1046 BCE), the king would use tortoise carapaces and ox shoulder blades to practice divination. In the practice of divination, the king would ask a question of his ancestors, the shamans would apply heat to the shell or bone, and the cracks would answer the questions. The questions and answers would be scratched into the bone. You can see lots of these artifacts in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Scholars have unlocked the oracle bone script, which is an early form of pictographs and is related to modern-day Chinese characters. From the oracle bones, we know that many of the divination questions were related to illness. It appears that the Chinese of the Shang Culture believed that angry ancestral spirits caused illnesses and that the way to end illness was to appease the angry ancestor. Unschuld notes that the Shang Culture did not see a real separation between the living and the dead. There seemed to be a contract between the living and the dead; the living would provide the dead with sacrifices, and the dead would protect the living from harm. Unschuld further comments that such a mindset can still be found in Taiwan and Hong Kong. That reminded me of the time Pa got a speeding ticket on the way to sweep the family tomb…
A few months after Yuni, the girls, and I had moved to the United States, we got a phone call from the family in Taiwan berating Yuni for getting caught driving down the shoulder of the road by one of the cameras along the highway. A traffic ticket had come to the family home in Chungli. Yuni did not remember driving along the shoulder of the highway illegally, when we went on our tour of the island to say good-bye to friends and relatives, but he was not sure. So he gave Ma the password for his bank account and told her to take the money to pay off the ticket. He also told her to keep the traffic ticket photo because he wanted to examine it. The next summer, we went back to Taiwan for a visit, and Ma pulled out the photo, which she had duly hidden in a secret place in her bedroom. Yuni looked at the date and announced that this could not have been him driving because it was taken several months AFTER we had moved to the US. Pa said that he had not driven on the highway because all his work was local, but then he remembered something. He asked for the date again and checked the Chinese lunar calendar. It turned out that Pa had been driving down for the family tomb sweeping ceremony, and the picture was of him. There was a traffic jam on the freeway, and he had driven along the shoulder in his efforts to be on time for the sacrifice to the ancestors. He had been the one to get the ticket.
Pa was quite upset at the ancestors for not protecting him while he was on the way to offer the yearly sacrifice. He said that the ancestors must not be very efficacious, since they could not even keep him from getting a traffic ticket. Ma later told me that from that time forward, Pa stopped going to the tomb sweeping ceremony. He would send money to Eldest Paternal Uncle and have him buy a chicken for the ancestors to offer in Pa’s name, but Pa himself stopped going up to the tomb. In 1999, there was a large earthquake in Taiwan. Pa and Ma were visiting us in the US, and all their children in Taiwan had called in reporting that they were safe, except for Eldest Sister, who lived closest to the epicenter. Pa went out into the garden and began praying to Jesus for her safety. I heard him, but I did not interrupt. Later, after Eldest Sister got through to us, I asked Pa about his prayers. He told me that in his heart he was a Christian, but because he had not been able to obtain permission from his parents to NOT practice ancestor worship, he did not feel free to join in Christian practice. He did, however, give his blessing to his children to practice Christianity and to refrain from worshiping him after his death. To Pa, at least, this contract with his parents was very real, and he would not breach it, even though he did not believe that they could adequately protect him from the spirit world.
After discussing Shang Culture and ancestor worship, Unschuld moves on to discuss the changes in beliefs about healing that occurred during the Zhou Dynasty (1100-221 BCE). In the Zhou Dynasty, the ancestors gave way to demons, and demonology became prevalent. Unschuld again notes that certain segments of the population still practice a form of demonology against illness, especially in Taiwan and Hong Kong. When some Chinese get sick, or at least this was true still in the 1980s when I lived in Taiwan, they go to a temple or to a shaman and have him write a fu, a magical symbol. They then take this paper with the symbol and burn it. They mix the ashes with warm water and drink it as medicine. Although I never met him, Ma and Yuni both told me that Grandpa Chu was able to write fu. Yuni said that he can remember drinking warm water with ashes from a fu when he got colds as a young child. Many of the taxis in Taiwan also hang from the rearview mirror protective fu written on yellow paper, which are sometimes folded up in a red silk bag. Teacher, too, told us stories about drinking the ashes of fu when she got sick as a child. As an adult, she believed that the efficacy of the fu lay in the large glass of warm water and in the fact that you were then supposed to go to bed to sleep off the illness. She felt that the warm water had a purgative effect and the bedrest allowed your body to heal itself.
The scholars of the Qin and the Han Dynasties seem to be the ones who developed the various theories of systematic correspondence, which make up the theoretical basis for TCM today. I will discuss those in another post.