Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
and Pharmacology

Chinese medicine and pharmacology are important component parts of China’s splendid national culture. Chinese medicine and pharmacology have made tremendous contributions to China’s prosperity throughout the country’s history of several thousand years. They are noted worldwide for their outstanding curative effects, strong national character, unique method of diagnosis and treatment, systemic theories and vast accumulation of historical records and materials, making it common wealth of the medical treasure-house of mankind. Chinese medicine and pharmacology have shown great vitality for several thousand years. They are also a valuable complement to the modern techniques of medicine and pharmacology. 

A pharmacist in Tongrentang, an old Chinese medicine shop, is preparing Chinese medicinal concoction according to a formula.


The origin of traditional Chinese medicine and pharmacology can be traced back to primitive society. Medicine was originally created in the struggle against Nature by the ancient Chinese. In the course of food gathering, they found that some food items could alleviate the symptoms of or cure diseases. That was the origin of TCM. When the ancient Chinese lit fires to warm themselves, they also found that heated stones and sand wrapped in animal skin or bark could reduce pain. Through repeated practice and improvement, moxibustion methods were gradually developed. In the process of using stone instruments they found that when a part of the body was hit by something, pain in some other part of the body might be relieved, and so stone or bone acupuncture needles were invented. After a long period of development, the theory of collateral channels took shape, and the technique of acupuncture treatment was perfected.

The basic theory of TCM shows its unique understanding of the zang-fu organs, meridians and collateral channels, qi, blood and body fluids, and pathogeny. The diagnostic method of TCM consists of the “four examination methods” and the differentiation of symptoms. The former refers to visual inspection of the complexion, auscultation, reading the pulse and directly asking about the patient’s conditions. The differentiation of symptoms means after the actual circumstances are gathered through these examinations and analyses, the proper method of treatment is induced. TCM pharmaceutical treatment is often accompanied by acupuncture, massage therapy and qigong (breathing exercises).    

The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Medicine, the earliest and most comprehensive medical classic from both the theoretical and clinical standpoints, was compiled more than 2,000 years ago, and laid a theoretical foundation for TCM. Later, other authoritative medical books appeared, such as the Classic of Difficulties, Treatise on Febrile and Other Diseases and Causes and Symptoms of Diseases. Shen Nong’s Materia Medica is the earliest known pharmacopoeia in China. The Materia Medica of the Tang Dynasty was the first pharmacopoeia published by the government in ancient China, as well as being the earliest state pharmacopoeia in the world. The Compendium of Materia Medica compiled by Li Shizhen of the Ming Dynasty contains details of 1,892 kinds of herbs and 10,000 prescriptions.

Since the founding of New China in 1949, the government has paid great and consistent attention to the development of TCM. In 1986, the State Traditional Chinese Medicine Administration was established. Two years later, the name was changed to the State Traditional Chinese Medicine and Pharmaceuticals Administration. A series of policies, principles and regulations have been formulated to promote the development of TCM and pharmacology. At the same time, higher and secondary TCM education has developed gradually. Regular education and other kinds of education, such as correspondence and night school courses, as well as teach-yourself programs have trained a lot of TCM personnel. A fairly comprehensive TCM pharmaceuticals industry has been basically completed. As China develops its modern medical system, active efforts are being made to synthesize Western and Chinese techniques and theories, with emphasis on the respective strengths and weaknesses of both approaches. Chinese medicine, Western medicine and integrated Chinese and Western medicine exist side by side. Medical workers working on the integration of Chinese and Western medicine have done a lot of research work on the basic theories and principles of treatment of TCM with advanced techniques and modern methods. For example, scientific annotations have been made on the principles of the zang-fu organs, stasis of blood and acupuncture. Great achievements have been made by China in the five fields of fractures treatment, acute abdominal diseases treatment, acupuncture anaesthesia, replanting of broken limbs and extensive burns treatment, the former three being the result of combining Chinese and Western medicine techniques.

In recent years, great successes have been made by using combined Chinese and Western techniques to treat cardiac and cerebral vascular diseases, immunological diseases, tumors, fractures and some other diseases. New progress has been made in the investigation of folk prescriptions, in planting and processing herbal medicines and in the development of drugs. Consequently more and more diseases can be treated by TCM methods. TCM can ensure quick recovery for patients suffering from acute abdominal diseases without the need for surgery. Acupuncture treatment and acupuncture anaesthesia are now used in 120 countries and regions throughout the world. In 1987, the World Acupuncture and Moxibustion Union was established in Beijing, with nearly 100 countries and regions participating, giving a total of more than 50,000 members. This is the first international academic organization with its headquarters in China and with China as its chairman. An international qigong conference was held in Beijing in 1989, with 29 countries and regions participating. In 1991, China organized an international conference on traditional medicine and pharmacology, and a Beijing Declaration was drafted by the several dozen countries which participated. At present, China carries out academic exchanges with more than 100 countries and regions throughout the world.

Following the popularization of the use of natural medicines and non-medicinal treatment in foreign countries, people all over the world have become more interested in TCM and pharmacology in recent years. Cooperations in TCM and pharmacolgy are increasing day by day. Cooperative relations have been established between China and Japan, the United States and Germany. In addition, seven traditional medicine and pharmacology centers have been established in China by the WHO. The number of foreign students who come to China to study TCM ranks first among those studying natural sciences in China. An agreement has been reached to run a TCM school cooperatively between Beijing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine and a British national university. It will be the first regular university in Britain, and even in Europe, to teach TCM. Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) also have TCM schools. France, the United States, Italy, Australia and some other countries have established TCM colleges or acupuncture and anaesthesia colleges, and Munich University in Germany has its Institute on the Theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

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Last updated: 2000-07-13.