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Chinese Medical Concepts in Urban China

Change and Persistence

Martin Böke

Popular assertions proclaim a tradition of Chinese medicine spanning several thousand years. But is this really important for today’s China? Is Chinese medicine relevant for the modern, cosmopolitan urban Chinese today? And, as the political system has changed dramatically during the last century, do these changes influence people’s estimation of illnesses? Combining both a quintessential analysis of the relationship between emotions and health in different texts on Chinese medicine and empirical data consisting of quantitative and qualitative components, the author demonstrates that different social groups of urban dwellers share different opinions on Chinese medicine and its illness concepts, particularly those concepts commonly referred to as Seven Emotions. Education, age and gender are relevant categories for the evaluation of Chinese medicine, especially considering emotions such as stress or depression.
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5. Somatization: ‘Eastern Culture-Bound Syndrome’ or ‘Western Culture-Bound Perspective’?


The analysis of the modern textbooks on Chinese medicine reveals that emotions are still perceived as an important etiological factor. These books state that emotions can cause a whole range of different diseases or worsen illnesses. However, when it comes to treatment, emotions in a [Western] psychological sense are more or less neglected. Only one of the selected textbooks (Wang 2007a) recommends developing a peaceful and optimistic mood and asks the doctor to gain the patient’s trust in order to create a relaxed and calm atmosphere. The other treatment methods outlined in the analyzed textbooks all focus on ‘somatic’ treatment (i.e. on the prescription of herbal medicine which is supposed to eliminate the ‘somatic’ manifestations of the illnesses, the stagnations, blockades, deficiencies and excesses). They do not focus on changing the patient’s inharmonious emotional condition by recommending ‘psyche’-related treatment methods such as counselling, recommendations for changing the depressive or upsetting situation, or coping with sadness and sorrow. This coincides and corresponds with the patient’s tendency to ‘somatize’ (i.e. primarily present ‘somatic’ symptoms while seeking ‘psychological’ help), which has been proven in the Chinese context in various observations such as the groundbreaking work of Arthur Kleinman (1979, 1982, 1986). He showed that between 80% and 90% of Chinese psychiatric outpatients from the 1950s to 1980 received the diagnosis of ‘neurasthenia’ (shenjing shuairuo 神经衰弱) instead of depression, which should have been the correct diagnosis according to DSM-III88. Neurasthenia is a disease concept that is coded as a nervous weakness mainly manifesting...

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