Traditional Chinese medicine origins: Mao invented it but didn’t believe in it.

Chairman Mao Invented Traditional Chinese Medicine. But He Didn’t Believe in It.

Chairman Mao Invented Traditional Chinese Medicine. But He Didn’t Believe in It.

Health and medicine explained.
Oct. 22 2013 11:50 PM

Chairman Mao Invented Traditional Chinese Medicine

Why did the U.S. Senate unwittingly endorse 1950s Chinese Communist Party propaganda?

Chairman Mao Zedong
Chairman Mao Zedong (left) and Vice Chairman Lin Biao acknowledge the waving of "little red books" by a crowd in China.

Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

In case you missed it, Oct. 7–13 was designated Naturopathic Medicine Week, according to a Senate resolution sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski and passed by the Senate with unanimous consent. Among the reasons the Senate cited:

  • Naturopathic physicians can help address the shortage of primary care providers in the United States.
  • The profession of naturopathic medicine is dedicated to providing health care to underserved populations.
  • Naturopathic medicine provides consumers in the United States with more choice in health care.

Mikulski and the rest of the Senate may be surprised to learn that they were repeating 60-year-old justifications of Chinese medicine put forward by Chairman Mao. Unlike Mikulski, however, Mao was under no illusion that Chinese medicine—a key component of naturopathic education—actually worked. In The Private Life of Chairman Mao, Li Zhisui, one of Mao’s personal physicians, recounts a conversation they had on the subject. Trained as an M.D. in Western medicine, Li admitted to being baffled by ancient Chinese medical books, especially their theories relating to the five elements. It turns out his employer also found them implausible. 

Barbara Mikulski
Sen. Barbara Mikulski on June 8, 2011, in Washington.

Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty Images


“Even though I believe we should promote Chinese medicine,” Mao told him, “I personally do not believe in it. I don’t take Chinese medicine.”

Mao’s support of Chinese medicine was inspired by political necessity. In a 1950 speech (unwittingly echoed by the Senate’s concerns about “providing health care to underserved populations”), he said:

Our nation’s health work teams are large. They have to concern themselves with over 500 million people [including the] young, old, and ill. … At present, doctors of Western medicine are few, and thus the broad masses of the people, and in particular the peasants, rely on Chinese medicine to treat illness. Therefore, we must strive for the complete unification of Chinese medicine. (Translations from Kim Taylor’s Chinese Medicine in Early Communist China, 1945-1963: A Medicine of Revolution.)

For Mao, as for the Senate, health care policy also reflected national ideology. While the Senate resolution praised naturopathic medicine as providing “consumers” with “more choice” (does it get more American than that?), Mao emphasized “complete unification,” a grand dialectical Marxist synthesis of Chinese medicine and Western medicine. “This One Medicine,” exulted the president of the Chinese Medical Association in 1952, “will possess a basis in modern natural sciences, will have absorbed the ancient and the new, the Chinese and the foreign, all medical achievements—and will be China’s New Medicine!”

The target audience of this propagandized medical reform wasn’t just domestic. Thanks to Westerners’ starry-eyed romanticization of the mysterious Orient, Chinese medicine stood to improve international relations. A 1955 report from the Chinese Medical Association proudly declared:

Our ancient medicine is … the subject of interest of the medical world in capitalist countries. Soviet experts once especially invited Professor Li Tao to lecture on the history of Chinese medicine, but a delegation of French medical representatives [also] invited the two old Chinese medical practitioners Shi Jinmo and Yuan Hechai to a discussion. These are all evidence of the emphasis which foreign nations place on Chinese medicine.

But exporting Chinese medicine presented a formidable task, not least because there was no such thing as “Chinese medicine.” For thousands of years, healing practices in China had been highly idiosyncratic. Attempts at institutionalizing medical education were largely unsuccessful, and most practitioners drew at will on a mixture of demonology, astrology, yin-yang five phases theory, classic texts, folk wisdom, and personal experience.

Mao knew such medicine would be unappealing to empirically minded Westerners. He knew this because it was also unappealing to empirically minded Chinese people.

In 1923, Lu Xun, China’s most famous man of letters, reflected critically on his father’s visits to a Chinese doctor, visits that bankrupted the family and failed to produce results. “I still remember the doctor’s discussion and prescription,” Lu wrote, “and if I compare them with my knowledge now, I slowly realize that Chinese doctors are no more than a type of swindler, either intentional or unintentional, and I sympathize with deceived sick people and their families.”

Chinatown: Pharmacy in Vancouver, Canada
A Chinese pharmacy in Vancouver, Canada.

Photo by einstraus/Flickr via Creative Commons

There are those who would blame Lu’s skepticism on the Western-style medical education he received in Japan. Rightfully wary of ethnocentrism, some scholars have suggested that negative judgments about Chinese medicine result from the misapplication of “Western” criticisms to “Eastern” thought. In the words of anthropologist Judith Farquhar: “The standards of argument by which we judge our own most rigorous explanations cannot be applied to Chinese medicine.”

But this produces an absurd picture of China as a mysterious place where logic doesn’t—and shouldn’t—apply. In truth, skepticism, empiricism, and logic are not uniquely Western, and we should feel free to apply them to Chinese medicine.