Guan Qingwei: The philosophy of Chinese Medicine

An interview with Guan Qingwei, Director of Tongrentang Traditional Chinese Medicine Clinic. A highly experienced and effective practitioner who adheres to traditional Chinese medicine in methodology and prescriptions, he has cured people from many countries and regions.

Guan Qingwei
Doctor Guan Qingwei seeing a patient

Profile of Guan Qingwei

Guan Qingwei was born into a family of Chinese medicine practitioners. At the age of six, he started to recite introductory medical books such as Songs of Medical Recipes, Odes of Medicinal Properties, and Songs of Pulse. He has been the student of a number of famous masters of Chinese medicine. Included on the first national list of Representative Heritors of Intangible Cultural Heritage, he is currently Director of Tongrentang Traditional Chinese Medicine Clinic, Chief Physician at Beijing Tongrentang Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine, member of Tongrentang Group’s Committee of Experts, Executive Member of the Society of Chinese Medicine, Deputy Chairperson of the Chinese Geriatrics Society’s Committee of Chinese Medicine Research, member of Chinese Holistic Medicine Society, and a specially invited guest speaker of Chinese medical culture at the Confucius Institute. A highly experienced and effective practitioner who adheres to traditional Chinese medicine in methodology and prescriptions, he has cured people from many countries and regions. He also has a deep understanding of preventive medicine and healthy living through Chinese medicine, having published numerous academic articles with original views. He was involved in the founding of the first “Traditional Chinese Medicine Clinic” in Beijing and the formulation of Tongrentang’s “Three Famous” growth strategy, namely “famous physicians, famous medicines, and famous brand”.

Guan Qingwei

Confucius Institute Reporter
Cheng Ye
本刊记者 程也
Mr. Guan Qingwei has a “cool” appearance: Chinese-style clothing, confident, piercing eyes, and a gentle smile with a hint of melancholy. At first glance, he seems to be a reserved man. However, his warm personality becomes apparent due to his polite manners and the lively spirit in which he talks about Chinese medical culture. Born into a family of Chinese medicine practitioners, he used to be perplexed by the fact that in the contemporary world, Chinese medicine was playing a dwindling role in spite of its profound insight and remarkable curative power. Devoted to medicine, he has kept busy curing countless patients, expounding Chinese medical culture and promoting the development of Chinese medicine. What is he like as a physician? What is the story about him and Chinese medicine? Confucius Institute reporter recently made an exclusive interview with Mr. Guan Qingwei.

Reporter: With a history of 342 years, the “Tongrentang Chinese Medical Culture” has been officially listed as one of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritages. What do you think of this?

Guan Qingwei: It’s not by accident that the Tongrentang Chinese Medical Culture is among the first to be recognized as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in the country. At the same time when it has embodied five thousand years of Chinese medical culture, Tongrentang has formed its own unique culture. It was named Tongrentang because, as its founder said, in the Datong Society [“Datong” literally means “general equality”] everything is done for the public good and great love is shown through general benevolence [ren]. At Tongrentang, we have always believed that the aim of medicine is to help society and promote healthy living. At Tongrentang’s gate there is a couplet that says: “Manpower shall not be spared no matter how difficult the procedures of pharmaceutical production are; materials shall not be reduced no matter how high the costs are.” This is a principle to which Tongrentang has always adhered.

Guan Qingwei
Tongrentang, a drugstore with a century of history

Reporter: The fact is, nowadays, most patients seek treatment from doctors of Western medicine. What is your judgment of people’s understanding of Chinese medicine?

Guan Qingwei: I have done more than 30 years of clinical work at Tongrentang Traditional Chinese Medicine Clinic, and every week I receive more than 200 patients. You could say that every day I have discussions with people in my consulting room about Chinese medical culture. My feeling is that many people only have a hazy understanding of Chinese medicine, and when I talk with them I feel that we are not on the same page. Why are we not on the same page? Because when I tell them about Chinese medical culture they turn to me an ear for hearing English. I face such patients every day. For almost a hundred years, Chinese education has followed the Western path; so, to a large extent our cultural genes bear the marks of Western influence. Now our education has walked too far away from our Chinese medical culture, from studies of our own civilization. We are talking about cultural dislocation. We can say that Chinese medicine is China’s Fifth Great Invention, besides the other world-famous four: the compass, gunpowder, paper, and printing. Chinese medical culture is a treasure that we have inherited from our ancestors. It is extensive and profound, and we should definitely study it in earnest.

Reporter: What is the fundamental difference between Chinese medicine and Western medicine?

Guan Qingwei: While Chinese medicine is a dialectical system, Western medicine is a system for identifying illnesses. The former addresses imbalances between the forces of yin and yang in our body by using traditional Chinese medicines, acupuncture/moxibustion, massage, and breathing exercises to awaken our self-adjustment mechanism. When our self-adjustment function is lifted to its normal performance level, balance between yin and yang will be restored and the illness will disappear from our body. The latter, however, tries to find the pathogen in our body, locate the focus of the illness, and remove the pathogen using chemical formulas. So, Chinese medicine is medicine of balances, while Western medicine is medicine of confrontation. Chinese medicine treats the person, while Western medicine treats the illness. Western medicine sees the patient as a physical condition; it looks for the pathogen within a structure and then destroys it. Chinese medicine is based on theories of cosmogony. Instead of focusing on a cell or a DNA in your body, it sees you, in whole, as a human being that’s supposed to be in balance with your environment.

In Chinese medicine, inquiries are not made at the crude material level; rather, treatment is conducted with a view of the condition of the patient’s entire functional system, energy system and information system. Chinese medicine aims for balances in three major aspects. The first is the balance between man and nature. Man needs to be close to nature. The reason many people become ill when seasons change is that, because there is an imbalance between the life status of their body and nature, their body needs to make adjustments. The second is the balance between an individual and the society. If we fail to construct a good relation with the society, we’ll suffer from chronic pressure and anxiety, which will make it easy for our body to suffer illness. In our daily life, we should learn to be close to nature, to find balance with nature, and to maintain a balanced relation with society. The third is the balance between the functions of the body organs. This balance is very important. When we hear “heart, liver, spleen, lung, kidney”, we immediately visualize a picture of human anatomy drawn according to Western medicine. But in Chinese medicine, heart, liver, spleen, lung, and kidney are totally different concepts. Chinese medicine focuses on the essence of things, without regard for their forms. In Chinese medicine, when we treat a person, we consider the person as a whole, with a comprehensive view of all signs of abnormality, and the conditions of the patient’s entire functional system, energy system and information system.

All illnesses in our body are caused by one or several of these three imbalances, and all treatments in Chinese medicine, be it medication, massage, or acupuncture/moxibustion, are geared to restoring these three balances. The bearings and objectives of Chinese medication all point to lifting the level of balance in our body and improving the body’s ability to make adjustments. For example, you have three people who have been exposed to rain, and by the time one of them gets home, he has got a fever, which later turns into pneumonia. Why? Because he has less stamina than the other two. So, when we treat him, we should try to raise his physical condition to the level of the other two people, so that he will be capable of striking a balance with changes in nature. This way, he will not get sick easily, because he will not be affected so easily by elemental forces such as wind, cold, heat, humidity, dryness, and fire.

Guan Qingwei
“Treating winter diseases during summer time” is a frequently used method of treatment in traditional Chinese medicine.

Reporter: So, it sounds that Chinese medicine works at the level of “Dao” [道: the path]. This sounds a little occult. How should we understand it?

Guan Qingwei: What is “Dao”? If you look at this Chinese character, on the top is “ 丷”, a dot and a throwaway lying horizontally even on top of a horizontal stroke. This represents the yin and yang lines in Chinese culture. Right below this is the character 自 [zì], which means “self ”. Then, at the bottom is the character 辶. All this means that 道refers to the correct path on which all things in the universe move in accordance with the laws that govern their existence. As human beings, we have to move in accordance with the laws of our life. When we go against the laws of our life and our movement, we become ill. What is “De”? “De” refers to our body’s ability to harmonize us with “Dao”. So, health is really a matter of “Daode”.

Our body is in a constant dance with nature. So, inquiries in Chinese medicine are based on the view that man and the universe are one or, in other words, the relation between man and nature is one of a harmonious dance. The better we understand the laws of nature, the less prone we are to harm and illness. Nowadays many people become ill, because they don’t understand “Dao” and “De”. They don’t know the laws of nature, of society, or of relations among people. People of today have abandoned the pursuit of following these laws. Contemporary research in Chinese medicine is being conducted with total disregard for these laws and the concept of informational energy, which are so important to Chinese medicine.

You won’t see transformation of a plant’s informational energy happen in a test tube. For example, nourishment of vitality and promotion of the secretion of body fluids will not happen in a test tube; however, they do happen when the agents concerned interact with our body, especially at a time when we are lacking in vitality and body fluids. So, medicinal properties are really not things that stand alone from the human body.

Chinese medicine treats an illness differently in spring, in summer, in autumn, and in winter, making modifications to the medication in response to the pulses of nature. So, it’s a dynamic system of medicine that involves heaven, earth, and humanity. Therefore, experience counts a lot in Chinese medicine; you cannot count on medical books for effective medication, as recipes in a book can only tell you about specific cases that happened in certain times in the past. Good doctors in Chinese medicine are not made through extensive reading. Reading results in knowledge of things, but Chinese medicine requires “knowledge of the Way of nature” (of the “Dao”), which can only be attained by following a master in clinical practice.

In Chinese medical culture, inquiries are made at the “vital energy” level. What does this mean? We are talking about a metaphysical culture. Chinese medicine is a system that has been shaped by holistic and harmonistic views about the universe. It is a system that is safe, reassuring, and very effective in clinical practice. Our knowledge of the properties of Chinese medicines has been obtained through observing their use on living human beings. For example, our ancient ancestor Shen Nong personally tasted many different kinds of herbs. This is a culture that is based on several thousand years of practice; so it’s very safe. Chinese medicine is about using materials from nature to treat bodies that live in nature.

Reporter: As someone who grew up in a family of Chinese medicine practitioners, have you always had a firm belief in Chinese medicine?

Guan Qingwei: Not exactly. I was born into a family of Chinese medicine practitioners. My father, his elder brother, and my grandfather were all doctors of Chinese medicine. However, for a long time I rejected my father’s work, because I had a negative view of Chinese medicine.

We have all read or heard about The Medicine, written by Mr. Lu Xun, which is a story about using steamed bread dipped in human blood to treat patients with tuberculosis. We have also heard about his experiences with quack doctors, which prompted him to study Western medicine overseas. Many people have had similar experience. So, I used to think that Chinese medicine was useless and backward. However, one day something happened that shook me deeply: Because of my father’s treatment, a patient woke up from a two-year-long coma, stood up, and was able to walk again. Chinese medicine can be so powerful?! It was then that I started to question myself.

In the course of my work, I have experienced a huge number of cases, and I realize more and more that Chinese medicine is an excellent system. In the past 200 years, Western medicine has invented more than 7,000 thousand medicines, of which more than 6,000 have been weeded out, and more are still being weeded out. In comparison, many Chinese medicines have been used for a hundred or even a thousand years, for example, Liuwei Dihuang Wan, Niuhuang Qingxin Wan, and Wuji Baifeng Wan. Why? Because they suit the human body. They are medicines that boost our bodily functions. This is something that is beyond the capability of confrontational medicines, which are only good at waging war in our body.

Chinese medicines are the safest for our body. In Chinese medicine, we believe that when we take a medicine, we are at the same time taking in the energy and information that the medicine has taken from the earth. When a medicine is reduced to a molecular level, such holistic quality of energy and information disappear. Today’s micro studies of Chinese medicine are based on the biggest misunderstanding of Chinese medicine. Studies of our Chinese medicines have been distorted into plant pharmacology.

I have been surrounded by Chinese medicine since childhood, but it wasn’t until after 16 years of clinical practice that I truly entered the system of Chinese medicine. This had to do with my previous misunderstandings of Chinese medicine, of course, but it was also because of my old way of thinking. Young people of today have all grown up in a Westernized system. It’s not easy for them to shift into a way of thinking based on metaphysics about energy. I used to think that, in order to push Chinese medicine forward, we had to find a way to fit the Chinese medical culture into the Western system of science. After a lot of such effort, I realized that Chinese medicine and Western medicine are really two distinct systems.

Guan Qingwei

Reporter: You have treated many dignitaries and cured many difficult illnesses. Could you share with us a few unforgettable stories?

Guan Qingwei: For me, a patient is a patient; it makes no difference whether he is a dignitary or an ordinary person. Doctors of Chinese medicine always ask the patients detailed questions about their discomfort, because we respect the patient’s feelings. To me, what sets Chinese civilization apart is its focus on humanity, its emphasis on human dignity and value. You are not able to cure people before becoming a good person.

But, of course, I can tell you about two cases involving dignitaries. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia used to suffer from swelling in the legs. For two years, he saw doctors all over the world, and they couldn’t find the cause. Various tests done according to Western medicine showed no sign of illness. So, I went to Saudi Arabia, felt his pulse, and wrote him a prescription. After two to three weeks of medication, the swelling disappeared, and so far it has not come back.

Mr. Korn Dabbaransi, Thailand’s former deputy prime minister and now president of the Thai-Chinese Friendship Association, got a massive pull injury in the leg when he was playing badminton. After more than half a year’s massage and physical therapy, it still didn’t get any better. Using the Chinese concept of interrelatedness between the upper and lower limbs of the human body, I massaged his upper limbs for about 38 minutes and his pains stopped immediately. He walked away like a normal person.

Reporter: I guess that the most wonderful thing about Chinese medicine is probably its power to “cure illnesses that have not yet happened”. Right?

Guan Qingwei: Chinese medicine tries to read the patients, not their illnesses. Why does it take very little time for many famous doctors of Chinese medicine to treat a patient? In Chinese medicine, a diagnosis involves “looking, listening, questioning, and feeling the pulse”, and the doctor observes the patient as a whole living person. From the way the patient walks in, talks and sounds, from the look of their complexion, their eyes, and their tongue, and from the feel of their pulse, you already have eighty to ninety percent of the information you need for assessing their physical condition. Based on this information, you prescribe a recipe to lift the patient’s bodily functions to a certain level of performance, and then the patient’s body itself will be able to get rid of the illness.

“Curing illnesses that have not yet happened”, which is really preventive medicine, is the same idea. When you are suffering a grave illness, you tend to look up to your doctors as if they were gods capable of bringing the dead back to life. Wouldn’t it be better if someone could simply help you stay healthy? Unfortunately, few people understand this.

According to Chinese medicine, a change in the human body from normality to illness starts when, at the metaphysical level, there is a loss of balance between yin and yang. This beginning stage is called “pre-illness”. As this imbalance results in damage at the physical level, “pre-illness” develops into “nascent illness” and then into “illness”.

Pre-illness: At this stage, there is already a general imbalance between yin and yang, but the imbalance has not yet caused any apparent physical changes. There’s no way that modern medicine can detect this stage of unhealthiness. Nascent illness: This is the stage when the patient is just not feeling well enough, a sub-health state. At this stage, modern medicine’s health indicators still cannot show any sign of abnormality. Illness: This is when an unhealthy change has already occurred in the body tissues. Abnormalities of this stage can be detected using modern medicine. In a sick person, the pre-illness condition and the illness condition exist at the same time.

Chinese medicine puts emphasis on “curing illnesses that have not yet happened rather than curing illnesses”, but this is not because Chinese medicine is not capable of curing illness and has to confine itself to curing “pre-illnesses”. Rather, it is because Chinese medicine sees that, in order to eradicate a problem, we have to treat the patient at the pre-illness stage. By improving people’s health at the “preillness” stage, Chinese medicine helps people avoid illness in the first place. Of course, when illness does come, Chinese medicine will stop it from becoming worse or cure it.

So, “curing illnesses that have not yet happened rather than curing illnesses” – this is not preventive medicine in the Western sense of the term. Having discovered “pre-illness” and developed a system of theory and methodology for treating it, Chinese medicine does not need the “preventive medicine” of the Western tradition.

So, does Chinese medicine have the concept of illness prevention? Yes. In Chinese medicine, preventive medicine is called “healthy living”, “cultivating one’s true nature”, and “perfecting one’s ways”. It is a health improvement practice that aims to help people enhance their ability to maintain balanced and harmonious relations with their own self, with society, and with nature through active self-cultivation on the basis of average levels of the yin-yang balance. So, in Chinese medicine, there are different levels of health or of yin-yang balance. The ability to stay healthy in a deeply turbulent natural environment is impossible without balance between yin and yang at higher levels.

Reporter: When a person has unobstructed flow of blood and vital forces, with body and heart in perfect harmony, can we say that he or she has attained the highest level of healthy living in Chinese medicine?

Guan Qingwei: Our Chinese medicine has a unique view of healthy living. Western medicine and modern science teach us to supply our body with nutrients that it lacks, be they proteins, vitamins, trace elements, or what have you. This supplying of the things that our body needs operates at the physical level of the body. In Chinese medicine, we also talk about nursing our health. However, we believe that the highest form of healthy living is achieved through nurturing the heart. “Heart” includes thinking and emotions, but it has a deeper and more extensive meaning in Chinese medicine; it refers to the mechanism for adjusting the yin-yang balance in the individual, whose health is believed to hinge upon dynamic balances between the body and the heart, between the individual and the society, between the individual and nature. When this mechanism is strong, the individual is said to “have spirit”; when it is weak, the individual is said to be at a “loss of spirit”. In all this, our thoughts, emotions, way of thinking, and ideology are extremely important; in fact, they often act as the most powerful force that keeps our self-adjustment capabilities in check. It is for this reason that Buddhism teaches us to “put the heart at rest”, Daoism teaches us to “be serene”, and Confucianism teaches us to “renounce the self and conform to the ideal of decency and good sense”. So, the important thing is to have peace, goodness, and beauty in our heart.

What is the soil that nourishes Chinese medicine? This soil is the extensive and profound Chinese culture. Without such soil, where could our Chinese medical culture go? Without a revitalized Chinese culture, there will be no revitalization of Chinese medical culture. We should seek more nourishment from Chinese culture and make more use of Chinese medicine’s view of balance to understand and care for our body, to make us healthier and happier.

Chinese medical culture is born of Chinese culture. Nurturing of the heart and nurturing of vitality both depend on “harmony”. There are a lot of enlightening views in Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, the three major schools of philosophy in Chinese civilization. Daoism teaches peaceful, natural, and harmonious relation between man and nature; Confucianism teaches harmony in social relations and institutions; Buddhism teaches us to have peace, goodness and beauty in our heart. These things are essential to healthy living. Health is a matter of morality, of the state of mind, of balance, and of harmony.


Confucius Magazine 15

pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 15. Volume 4. July 2011.
View/Download the print issue in PDF

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