Despite the widespread use of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in Singapore, many do not know much about TCM. We sat down with the author of The Dao of Healing and A Christian Perspective on Chinese Medicine, Dr Lai Pak-Wah, to answer the most commonly asked questions about TCM in Singapore.

On the origins of TCM: Who invented TCM? How and when did it start?
Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM began like many ancient healing traditions more than 2,500 years ago. The earliest evidence for Chinese medical therapy was around the Spring-Autumn and Warring States era and included the use of herbs, stretching exercises, and acupuncture. It was during the Han era, however, that Chinese medical theories began to emerge, structured around the philosophies of yinyang, Qi, and Wuxing. These theories then informed how the existing therapies should be employed and thus set the stage for the development of Chinese medicine.

The evolution of Chinese medicine was influenced by the development of technologies, libraries, and its responses to the epidemics of its times. During the Song dynasty, the development of printing, the consolidation of learning in imperial libraries, and the emphasis of using Chinese medicine to deal with the raging therapies saw a rapid growth of Chinese medical learning and research.

The next big development came in the late 19th century to mid 20th century. This was when TCM encountered modern (western) medicine and began to forge an integration between the two fields. Starting from the mid 20th century, TCM medical students in China, for example, were required to learn modern medicine as part of their training. Ironically, this integrative new Chinese Medicine is translated as Traditional Chinese Medicine in the English speaking world. Thus, it is helpful to use TCM to refer to this modern Chinese medical tradition as distinguished from the more ancient Chinese medical traditions.

Is TCM pseudoscience? Is TCM similar to alchemy?

All medical traditions worth their salt have to be based on empirical research and practice. Many of the medical treatises in China were written in this way. Where they differ from modern medicine is that “clinical trials” were conducted on human beings in the heat of epidemics treatments. The ancients had no luxury of leaning on modern double blind random clinical trials (RCT). It is noteworthy that RCT as a science was developed in the mid 20th century. It would be chronological snobbery and unfair to demand that ancient practices conform to a much later standard of research and experimentation. This being said, as the Chinese TCM market matures, more medicine and therapies are being put into RCTs and are yielding meaningful and interesting results.

In short, TCM, properly practised, is not alchemy. It is empirical-based medicine. Where it differs from modern medicine is where its standards for clinical efficacy were not based on RCTs, which is a modern benchmark.

Are TCM doctors “real doctors”? Are TCM practitioners doctors?

When someone speaks of “real doctors”, they usually mean doctors properly trained in medical schools and certified by the local or national authorities. TCM doctors in most countries must be trained in recognised TCM schools (such as Singapore College of TCM) and be certified by government authorities before they can practise.

In Singapore, TCM practice is governed by the Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners Board (TCMPB). This is a statutory board established under the Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners Act 2000. TCMPB registers TCM practitioners (both acupuncturists and TCM physicians), accredits TCM institutions and TCM courses for the purpose of registration, and regulates the professional ethics and conduct of registered TCM practitioners.

Want more in-depth answers, or have more questions about TCM? Interested in a philosophical and theological analyses of Chinese medicine? Pick up The Dao of Healing, or, if you are seeking a simpler introductory understanding of the subject, A Christian Perspective on Chinese Medicine.