In his famous Satire X, dating back to the 2nd century, Roman poet Juvenal tops his list of things most desirable in life with “Mens sana in corpore sano”, or "a healthy mind in a healthy body". The link between physical health and mental wellbeing permeates Chinese culture as well. Moreover, the connection between ‘essence’, ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’ - the so-called Three Treasures or Jing, Qi, Shen - stands at the very core of traditional Chinese medicine.
Qi (“vital force”) is a complex concept used to describe the physical and psychological energies that permeate all that exists. In early Daoist philosophy, methods were developed to control and change one’s qi, so that bodily fitness and spiritual strength would allow for a longer life. Similar meditation exercises soon gained pride of place in Chinese healing practices.
Qigong (“discipline of the vital force”), a training combining meditation, relaxation and breathing techniques with elements of martial arts, was believed to avert illness and help lengthenning life if executed correctly.
Closely connected to qigong but considered a separate discipline is taiji quan (“the supreme ultimate fist”): a method for conditioning the body and the mind that is rooted in exercise and meditation among Buddhist Shao Lin monks as early as the 5th century. Training in taiji quan helps to harmonize the complementary forces of yin and yang, with the absolute union of both - the taiji - as the end goal. This “Supreme Ultimate” oneness is represented by the black (yin) and white (yang) symbols forming one round shape (taijitu).
Central to taiji quan exercises are the meticulously choreographed positions and movements that alternate in a steady rhythm, with stances changing in a flowing, non-disruptive way.
Over 100 such exercises are known and taught in the different schools of taiji quan, many poetically named to describe the effect the movement is supposed to have. From “Golden Cockerel Stands on left leg” and “Wave Hands Like Clouds” to “White Crane Spreads its Wings”: in this typology, too, inspiration from nature is never far away.
Like taiji and qigong, daoyin is a method used to refine and direct qi as well as to cultivate jing (“essence”). With flexibility of mind as the ultimate goal, the exercises are meant to install harmony between the world inside and outside of the practitioner.
When meditation and exercise fail to restore the yin-yang balance or cultivate the Three Treasures, traditional Chinese medicine proposes a range of treatments. Acupuncture is believed to be among the oldest, although its exact origins remain contested. The main idea behind the technique is that in order to manipulate the qi, specific points in the network of meridians in the body should be punctured. A successful application would not only relieve the patient from pain but also cure theirhis ailment or disease.
Around 100 BC the basic theory of acupuncture was first codified in Huangdi Neijing, the most important ancient text in Chinese medicine. In Europe, acupuncture became commonly known in the early 19th century, but customs, theories and practices soon started to transform: in its Western manifestation, the spiritual components of acupuncture were abandoned, new diagrams of flows and trigger points were drawn, and puncturing the skin was believed not to aid energy flows but to manipulate electrical currents running through the body.
Many other practices from traditional Chinese medicine have become popular around the world, including the use of herbal preparations and supplements. The scope of herbal medicine is gigantic, as hundreds of ingredients - including dried plants, desiccated animal materials and minerals - are used for more than 100.000 different recipes.
Spices, herbs and superfoods such as ginseng, ginger, turmeric, ginkgo and loquat are used worldwide for their healing, reviving, rejuvenating, purifying or beautifying qualities.
While the efficacy of herbal therapies remains disputed, several of the plants used in traditional Chinese medicine have become staples of today’s pharmaceutical market. As a result, around 200 modern medicinal products have been created by building on centuries-old Eastern practices.