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Herbs and remedies

A therapist performs fire cupping on the back of a local resident in Tianjin, China. (Imaginechina via AP)


Herbs and remedies

As traditional Chinese medicine grows in popularity, Christians must weigh the good and the bad

Growing up, visits to the Chinese medicine doctor were as familiar to me as trips to the orthodontist or pediatrician. The office in a Chinese-majority suburb of Los Angeles reeked of pungent herbal curatives, and the wheelchair-bound doctor would check my tongue, feel my pulse, and ask a strangely specific question like, “Did you wake up with a runny nose last Wednesday?” Somehow, he’d always be right.

I never allowed him to do acupuncture on me—I had a fear of needles—but I’d watch in the examination room as my mom sat perfectly still with thin needles sticking out from her arms, legs, and ears. I wasn’t completely off the hook: The doctor would send me home with herbs and roots to be brewed in a clay pot. The drink was always dark, bitter, and disgusting, and I’d need a chaser of chocolate to rid my mouth of the foul taste.

I still visited my pediatrician for checkups or when I was sick but regularly visited the Chinese medicine doctor as an add-on for minor ailments. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is widely practiced in Eastern Asia and is becoming more popular in the West. Last summer, spectators noticed purple circles on the shoulders of swimmer Michael Phelps during the Olympics—the result of cupping, a TCM therapy used to relieve muscle pain.

But Christians have debated whether to partake in TCM, which has roots in Taoism. While some aspects of TCM have clearly spiritual dimensions, others such as herbal medicine and acupuncture are not necessarily spiritual in nature and can help alleviate chronic pain. One Chinese-American missionary even uses acupuncture to make gospel inroads in Southeast Asian villages.

Many doctors believe Christians are free to participate in TCM practices that are disassociated from religious beliefs. Indiana doctor Mark Freije, who is part of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations and has visited a TCM hospital in China, said acupuncture itself doesn’t cross a line. But if the practitioner prescribes meditation or delves into “yin-yang philosophy, we should be wary of that.”

Dating from the first century b.c., TCM was based in the belief that everything in the universe can be divided into opposing forces, the yin and the yang, and that balance between the two is needed to maintain a healthy body. Each person has qi or energy that flows through the body along channels called meridians. According to TCM, pains and various diseases occur when the qi’s flow is blocked, and needles pricked at acupuncture points along the meridian can help regulate the flow and diminish the pain.

Researchers have yet to find a scientific explanation for how acupuncture works. A 2010 study by the University of California, Irvine, argued the needles could be stimulating underlying neural pathways to bring about pain relief. Studies have found acupuncture can ease chronic pains and reduce headaches, yet the National Institutes of Health noted the effects of acupuncture are little understood and that the placebo effect may play a role.


Cheung practices acupuncture in Thailand. (Handout)

Samuel Cheung, a licensed Chinese medicine doctor and missionary, believes acupuncture and herbal medicine do not have innately spiritual components and are “just like getting a shot or taking a pill.” Secular TCM practitioners agree: The late Dr. Felix Mann, a British acupuncturist, told the U.K.’s Christian Medical Fellowship he believed the ancient Chinese found a way to treat patients that worked empirically and then created an explanation for it using their cultural beliefs.

Still, Cheung stays away from certain areas of TCM because of his Christian faith. For instance, he rejects the Taoist belief of yin and yang as well as qi gong, a TCM exercise and meditation technique.

In a case study published during a 2000 Lausanne Movement conference in Nairobi, a former qi gong master told of how his deep involvement in the technique healed him of rheumatism and enabled him to heal others and even engage in telepathy. Yet he said those supernatural powers came from demonic spirits who eventually enslaved him and commanded him to jump out a window. He was freed only after professing faith in Christ.

Cheung, who worked in the Western medical field for 25 years before becoming a missionary in Central and Southeast Asia, decided to learn TCM because he felt it would be a useful tool in his ministry. Many rural areas lacked the infrastructure for medical teams to haul heavy loads of equipment and medicine, but the only equipment needed for acupuncture are needles.

So at age 60, Cheung got a master’s degree in TCM in Los Angeles and returned to Asia, where he set up acupuncture clinics in rural villages and helped train more than 100 seminary students in the practice. Typically villagers would start out skeptical of acupuncture, but warm to it as they saw results.


Cheung practices acupuncture in Cambodia. (Handout)

In one Cambodian village, Cheung set up a clinic at a small church with only 10 congregants. The pastor and his wife faced hostility from the non-Christian villagers, who sometimes threw rocks at the couple. Yet as Cheung and his team helped locals deal with their physical pain, they started to view the church and its pastor in a different light. A year later, the church had 60 attendees.

“[Acupuncture] changes people’s attitude toward the gospel and God,” concluded Cheung. “It helps pastors make friends with the villagers.”


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  •  Bruce's picture
    Posted: Wed, 06/14/2017 01:57 am

    I appreciate reading the balance and discernment between spiritual concepts sometimes applied in TCM and the practical and real benefits that acupuncture brings as a means of caring for suffering people, providing an opportunity to demonstrate the compassion and grace we live out as followers of Christ.  I am encouraged to hear that Father is bringing to fruition the grace of His love in hostile communities through this service.  Thank you for this article.