CAMLAW: Complementary and Alternative Medicine Law Blog

Traditional Chinese medicine questioned by Chinese professor

A Chinese professor who has questioned the value Chinese traditional medicine finds himself "denounced as a traitor and subjected to scornful attacks by the Chinese government."

Zhang Gongyao, a scholar of medical history, is a professor at Central South University in Hunan province. He has "launched an online petition to seek its removal from the constitution and the official medical system."

Within China, Chinese medicine (including acupuncture and herbal remedies) is apparently not only part of China's long, historical legacy, but also a "$10-billion (U.S.) industry -- representing a quarter of the entire medical system -- with an estimated 300 million customers every year."

Traditional oriental medicine is also one of the most popular complementary and alternative therapies in the U.S. Acupuncture came to the United States upon the heels of the successful appendectomy by James Reston, President Nixon's press secretary, using acupuncture anesthesia during Nixon's "opening to China." Subsequently, the practice of acupuncture and traditional oriental medicine was licensed across many states, with the establishment of accredited schools to train practitioners of acupuncture and oriental medicine.

Apparently, Zhang's Chinese Internet site is reported to have claimed that: "'From the viewpoint of science, Chinese traditional medicine has neither an empirical nor a rational foundation. It is a threat to biodiversity. And it often uses poisons and waste as remedies. So we have enough reasons to bid farewell to it.'"

Skeptics in the U.S. have similarly called CAM 'unscientific' and urged the National Institutes of Health to stop funding research into complementary medicine--even though, ironically, clinical trials are exactly what are needed to prove whether the pejorative label is true or simply a sneak attack.

But Zhang's rhetoric, and the official response, have raised the debate to new levels.

In China, there is a long tradition of ancestor worship. Strongly attacking Chinese medicine can suggest going against the ancestors.

And there is a difference between debate, in a spirit of openness, and radical dismissal. Both the U.S. and the U.K. have convened expert bodies to evaluate the pros and cons, and research data concerning, different alternative therapies--including legal and regulatory issues. Notably in the U.S., there is The Institute of Medicine's Report on Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United States. This report stated that health care should strive to be both comprehensive and evidence-based, and called for conventional medical treatments and complementary and alternative treatments to be held to the same standards for demonstrating clinical effectiveness.

The article concludes that despite the rhetorical flourishes, "Mr. Zhang has triggered an important debate in Chinese society. It has revealed that many Chinese feel distrustful of traditional medicine, especially as their country moves into the global mainstream." Many nations share common questions concerning the appropriate boundaries of integrative medicine--integrating conventional medicine and complementary and alternative medicine or holistic health care practices (in China and elsewhere, "traditional medicine") in a way that respects current law and ethical norms.


Law Offices of Michael H. Cohen offers general corporate legal services, litigation consultation, and expertise in health law, with a unique focus on alternative, complementary, and integrative medical therapies.

Michael H. Cohen is also President of the the Institute for Integrative and Energy Medicine, also known as the Institute for Health, Ethics, Law, Policy & Society. The Institute serves as a reliable forum for investigation and recommendations regarding the legal, regulatory, ethical, and health policy issues involved in the judicious integration of complementary and alternative medical therapies (such as acupuncture and traditional oriental medicine, chiropractic, massage therapy, herbal medicine) and conventional clinical care.

The most recent book written by Michael H. Cohen on health care law, regulation, ethics and policy pertaining to complementary and alternative medicine and related fields is an interdisciplinary collection of essays entitled, Healing at the Borderland of Medicine and Religion. This is the fourth book in a series, the first being Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Legal Boundaries and Regulatory Perspectives (1998).

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