Traditional acupuncture in the light of modern knowledge

Numerous attempts to verify the objective existence of acupuncture points and channels, pulse phenomena and so on have been made in both East and West. Early claims that the points and channels could be demonstrated histologically have not stood up to later verification. Electrical studies intended to detect the points have given variable results. At present, the most that can be said is that there may be some electrical changes at certain acupuncture points but the significance of this is unknown. Many of the classic points correspond to trigger points or to places where nerves penetrate the fascia. Another possibility is that the acupuncture channels represent projection patterns within the central nervous system.

How the Chinese themselves came to conceive the arrangement of channels and points is unknown. We do not even know whether the points were found first and the channels postulated to join them up, or the other way round.

In presenting a modern version of acupuncture that largely neglects the traditional lore, I should not wish to appear to dismiss the whole conceptual apparatus of ancient Chinese philosophy and science as valueless. That would be an absurdly arrogant thing to do. On the contrary, I find Chinese thought an intensely fascinating subject. Taoism in particular, with its reverence for Nature, is one of the most profound and wise philosophies that human beings have produced. Certainly it teaches many lessons that our civilization would do well to learn before it is too late. I hope, therefore, it will not seem arrogant if I say that, so far as practical acupuncture is concerned, it is best approached from a non-traditional point of view. Until the seventeenth century Chinese science and technology were in advance of anything the West could boast. Since that time, however, our knowledge of anatomy, physiology and pathology have increased exponentially, and it seems absurd to shackle oneself today with the modes of thought of a bygone era.

The modern Chinese themselves seem to agree with this view. According to Nathan Sivin, an American sinologist who has studied the question at first hand, modern Chinese doctors do not use or understand the ancient system. They are unable to read the classical literature, which has to be translated into modern Chinese. Although acupuncture is still used the diagnostic methods are modern. Patients likewise are no longer familiar with the yin–yang and five-element concepts. Sivin, who is himself an enthusiast for the traditional system, concludes regretfully that there can be no return to TCM in its original form.

It is in any case questionable how far Western enthusiasts for TCM are really practising an authentic form of the ancient treatment. They naturally rely almost wholly on translations, and much of the terminology and conceptual apparatus used derives from a French novelist and diplomat Soulié de Morant, who wrote in the 1930s. Errors introduced by him have not been corrected by modern writers. The two most important mistranslations were “point”, which would be better rendered as “foramen”, implying an anatomical structure (as in the sacral foraminae) and “chi”, wrongly rendered as “energy”. “As a result Soulié could be called the father of “Euro-Puncture”, the playground of many laymen as well as physicians, because it seemed that, according to Soulié, solid medical knowledge was not absolutely necessary for the reliable practice of acupuncture.”

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