Greek Man, Meet Chinese Man


For anyone who’s ever gone to an alternative medicine practitioner, there’s likely a chance you were diagnosed with something that made no sense to you.

Maybe you’ve been told that your heart chakra is out of whack, or that your lung meridian is obstructed, or maybe that there’s dampness in your spleen. I myself even informed a patient the other day they may have a bout of wind blowing around inside them. If you’ve been told something like this, something bizarre that you’d hear in an Alice in Wonderland adventure, do not panic! Most importantly, don’t take it so literally.

So why do medical practices have so many different, and often conflicting, ways of interpreting your body and your health? The above illustration explains it all. On the left, you have your typical ancient Greek man, standing proud and naked and displaying a rather nice set of abs (damn, I need to start that sit-up routine again).

On the right, you have a Daoist painting entitled the NeiJing, or internal landscape. This illustration was likely done during the mid 1800’s… and interestingly enough, it also depicts a man. Ah! Interesting, no?

The obvious difference between these two depictions? The ancient Greeks analyzed the body literally. The ancient Chinese analyzed it metaphorically.

To give you a better idea of what I’m talking about, take a second look at the illustration on the right. Like I said, it symbolizes a man. He’s facing left. You can see his spine running up the right side represented by mountains. There’s a thin river within those mountain that could be his spinal cord. The old man sitting and meditating at the top where the river ends is LaoZi, the ancient Daoist philosopher, who represents wisdom, or in this case his frontal lobe. There’s a round red garden which is his heart, a forest that is his liver, and a bull that’s his… um, well I did say this was a man right?

The picture depicts a body not literally, but metaphorically. The various objects and activities within the painting explain all sorts of internal relationships and physiological processes that take place. It’s not meant to be taken literally, it’s a symbolic representation. It’s through imagery like this that many traditional medical practices understood, and continue to this day to understand, physiology and pathology.

Does it now make more sense? Instead of muscles, you have mountains! Instead of blood, you have rivers! Instead of a virus, you have evil wind heat, and instead of a weak immune system, you have deficient Qi. It sounds a little strange, I know, but you need to consider that ancient medical practices were based predominantly on clinical observation and environmental comparison, not scientific and biological examination. If you’re asking yourself why ancient medical theories don’t just switch over to contemporary practice theories, well the answer is simple. Not all clinical phenomenon can be explained with contemporary rational. So rather than abandon treatment methods that have clinical value, it’s better to use them in their original context. As time goes by though, and people continue to search for explanations, we are filling in the gaps. At some point in the future I think there’s hope that all forms of medical theory will meet, and see the body in it’s true singular form.

So the next time your diagnosed with a disharmony between fire and water, you can rest assured that your alternative medicine practitioner isn’t high on herbal medication. They’re just seeing you in a different light! Metaphorically speaking of course.

2 responses

  1. Deliteralization at its best. Lao-Tzu must be smiling down at our fumblings … for some it takes longer, and “for those who have, more will be given”. thx, ch

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