The university where traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine sit side by side

Chris Parr visits a university aiming to be the best in the world at both Western and traditional Chinese medicine

July 12, 2017
Traditional Chinese medicine
Source: Getty

I’ve been on a fair few university tours. This one had much in common with a trip around any university with a medical school. 

The tour took me to a hospital, where students hone their skills. There was a waiting area with several slightly uneasy looking patients waiting to be seen, and on one ward, two rows of beds – about 20 in total – with curtains drawn for discretion. 

What was slightly different, however, was that all the patients on this particular ward were receiving the same treatment: acupuncture. I was in the traditional Chinese medicine department at China Medical University hospital in Taichung, Taiwan. 

The teaching of traditional Chinese medicine in universities is not without controversy – particularly in the West. The discipline is dismissed by many as pseudoscience. It is often lumped together with the likes of homeopathy, Ayurvedic medicine and Naad yoga. 

These forms of complementary and alternative medicine have no place in universities, critics say, since much of what they advise is not scientifically proven; it is at best ineffective, and at worst very dangerous. 

I am inclined to agree. But this blog is not about my or others’ views on the teaching of traditional Chinese medicine. Rather, it aims to give some insight into a university where both Western and traditional medicine are taught side by side. 

At CMU, students can take a Western medical degree (seven years) or a traditional Chinese medicine degree (also seven years). In the early stages, they may take modules from either side before specialising. A select group – about 80 each year – take in both areas, and study for eight years. 

Some 50 per cent of the traditional Chinese medicine doctors in Taiwan are graduates of the university, we are told as we leave the acupuncture ward. 

At the Lifu Museum of Chinese Medicine, we are shown around by a sophomore who is studying towards a traditional Chinese medicine degree. She introduces us to some of the discipline’s key texts and most influential figures. There’s Huangdi Neijing, a text thought to be more than 2,000 years old, which details (among many other things) how organs work and how we should adapt our lifestyle according to the seasons. It is still taught today, she says. 

We hear about Bian Que, a physician who, legend has it, “could see through one’s body with his X-ray eyes”. And Zhang Zhongjing, who wrote the bible on how to treat a huge number of illnesses and diseases, and whose work students today – some 2,000 years later – must still memorise. 

I take the opportunity to ask our guide what she would say to those critics who feel that such historic practices have no place being taught at universities – particularly those that also offer more “scientific” medical courses. 

Her answer is considered, and given with conviction. Such teachings and practices, she says, make patients better. Not only in her experience – although she is speaking from her personal viewpoint – but in the experience of uncountable numbers of people for thousands of years. 

In some cases, “we may not understand why” some practices appear to benefit patients, she says, but we must “continue researching” in order to find out. 

Earlier in the tour, the student had made reference to Tu Youyou, the first Chinese person to win a Nobel prize for a scientific discipline for research carried out in China. She was instrumental in the development of a drug that treats malaria, and won the prize for medicine in 2015. 

The inspiration for her work was traditional Chinese medicine – a centuries-old text led her to a plant, from which she extracted the antimalarial substance (forgive my oversimplification of this process). 

At the time, Chinese premier Li Keqiang said that the award was the embodiment of the “enormous contribution of traditional Chinese medicine to human health”. After my question, a fellow tour member (a senior manager from another Taiwanese university) reminds me of this story. 

Again, critics would say that the work involved in the extraction and successful development of the antimalarial substance had little to do with traditional Chinese medicine. But here, it certainly serves as an example of where the research of theories in historic texts did indeed lead to a very welcome scientific discovery. 

The museum, with its bronze statue showing acupuncture points and its mock-up of a traditional Chinese pharmacy (with hundreds of wooden boxes and porcelain jars containing all manner of treatments), seems a far cry from CMU’s Western medical wing, which we also visit. 

We drive past the huge, brutalist Cancer Center overlooking the city of Taichung and housing the university hospital’s oncology department; and the Trauma Center, complete with helipad, where the most urgent cases are treated. 

Also in the Western hospital is the “smart ward”, where patients are issued with a tablet computer that allows them to access their records, schedule appointments, summon a nurse, or even open and close the curtains and adjust the lighting. The beds can also warn the staff if a patient who is supposed to stay in bed has attempted to get up. 

It was this juxtaposition of old and new that was most striking about the tour. CMU says that its mission is to become a global leader in both Western and Chinese medicine. This means that it must offer students access to some of the most groundbreaking medical technology and practices in the world, while also advocating for some of the oldest. 

I’m aware that this is not a unique position. Many universities the world over offer classes, or whole courses, in both Western and complementary medicine (including Chinese medicine). However, they do so amid great criticism from some quarters – and no doubt CMU is no stranger to such discussions. 

There are others, however, who are less dismissive. On the day I was on the traditional Chinese medicine ward, two international doctors – one from France and one from Russia – were visiting the hospital to find out more. The guide says that this is a regular occurrence – and she clearly believes that there is much that Western medicine can learn from traditional Chinese practices.

Chris Parr is digital and communities editor at Times Higher Education.

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