Health preservation and Chinese medicine

Health preservation is an ancient concern of the traditional Chinese medicine, that recommends protecting health through massage and healthy diet, sports, scheduled work, rest and psychological cultivation.

health preservation

Confucius Institute Reporter,
Tu Yuanyuan
本刊记者 屠芫芫
In recent years, as people’s living standard is improving, health preservation has become a buzzword. TV programs dedicated to Health preservation always take up prime-time slots. Newspapers and magazines also present special reports on it. Books about it are prominently displayed in bookstores. If you type the keyword “health preservation” on Baidu search engine, you will get nearly 100 million search results. An office on the 15th floor of a building could have been converted to a healthcare club. Many new terms were coined, such as white-collar health meal and health teahouse. There are just so many topics related to health preservation.

The concept of health preservation was shaped in ancient China. Ji Kang, a man of letters in the period of Three Kingdoms (about 220—280AD), mentioned the relationship between health preservation and artistic cultivation in his book On Health Preservation. Sun Simiao, known as the King of Medicine in the Tang Dynasty, summarized Thirteen Measures to Keep Health. He innovatively linked diet with seasonal changes. Li Shizhen, the famous herbalist in the Ming Dynasty, wrote Compendium of Materia Medica after he had travelled across mountains and rivers and tasted all kinds of herbs. In this book, he introduced the detailed relationship between plants (including vegetables and fruits) and health preservation. Even in earlier times, Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon, the first medical cannon in the Qin and Han Dynasties, had elaborately analysed the exposition of TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) health preservation.

Intelligent Chinese people have inherited many health preserving methods. Among them is meridian-collateral health preservation–to stimulate acupuncture points and collateral channels through acupuncture and massage— a practice based on the theories of Yin-yang and Five Elements. Traditional herbal health preservation is to take herbal soups made from herbs of different properties and effects. Daily health preservation also means to keep a regimen in all aspects of routine life, including diet and exercises. As a matter of fact, health preservation is not complex and can be practiced by everyone. Here are some health preserving tips for you.

health preservation


Ancient Chinese people believed that all materials in the universe are made of five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. “Xing” means continuous movement. “Wu Xing” refers to the movement changes of these five elements. All things on earth are mutually generating or overcoming with each other. Only by observing the generating and overcoming rules, can all things coexist harmoniously. The Five Elements theory is a foundation for TCM.

health preservation

A Balanced Diet

Mo Yan, the Nobel Literate in 2012, joked about his first motive for writing–having three meals of dumplings everyday just as one of his villagers did. Today, many families are living the happy life Mo Yan once dreamed of. Having enough food is no longer a problem. What people concern about is having healthy meals, by which, it does not simply mean eating more meat. There is so much to learn about. As an old Chinese saying goes “to keep healthy through balanced diet”, we need to avoid eating too much. Chinese people always believe that being 70% full is ideal. In addition, we need to have meals on time with a balanced diet. Five flavors of food also need to be balanced, because too much sour food would hurt the spleen, too much bitter food would hurt the kidney, too much pungent food the liver, too much salty food the heart and too much sweet flavor the stomach.

Chinese people pay attention to the harmonious coexistence between mankind and nature. We not only need to keep a healthy diet, but also select food in various seasons. For example, according to the TCM, if people eat too much salty food in winter, the burden on kidney will be increased. Since it’s dry in northern China food which can nourish your lung, such as lotus root, lily bulb and tremella, are highly recommended. When winter comes, we see people start making paste in supermarkets in Beijing with donkeyhide gelatin, fried sesame and shelled walnut. This is a popular product for women in winter for its health preservation effects: improving sleep and eyesight, nourishing the liver and enrich the blood.

There are also various healthy soups for in various seasons, especially in southern China. The Cantonese would have a bowl of soup before meal. They make pork rib soup with bitter gourd in summer to relieve internal heat and they add astragalus propinquus root and ginseng root to chicken soup to dispel cold and replenish vital energy in winter.

There are also various healthy soups for in various seasons, especially in southern China. The Cantonese would have a bowl of soup before meal. They make pork rib soup with bitter gourd in summer to relieve internal heat and they add astragalus propinquus root and ginseng root to chicken soup to dispel cold and replenish vital energy in winter.

A year of four seasons consists of 24 solar terms. In recent years, health preserving drinks made for different solar terms have been popular.

In a famous TCM clinic near the Fragrant Hill in the west of Beijing, every patient will be served with a cup of hot tea in accordiance with the right solar term. Some tea has the fragrance of rose while Chinese wolfberry tea tastes sweet and Schisandra chinensis tea a slight sour. When talking about his solar term health preserving teas, Dr. Niu Zhigang explained that 24 solar terms can not only guide agricultural production, but also help to cure diseases and preserve health. Being effective, the solar term herbal teas also taste good. For instance, at the Beginning of Spring, health preserving tea is made of cinnamon and semen cassia, because Spring is the time when all living creatures grow and Yang Qi (in Chinese philosophy and medicine Yang Qi means positive and vital energy) grows, which is not good for patients with hypertension and liver diseases. Semen cassia could remove heat from the liver and moisten the intestines, while cinnamon could nourish the blood and calm the nerves so as to protect the liver and kidney.

health preservation

A Regular Daily Life

In old times, people started working when the sun rose and put their feet up when the sun set. Having to rest earlier guaranteed enough energy for next day’s work. People had no telephone nor Internet. Boring as it was, people were healthy, because the lifestyle corresponded to the courses of nature. Modern people, however, sit up late or sleep in the morning, putting their health at risk over time.

Regarding work and rest schedule, in Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon, “People should go to bed early and get up late in winter, just like the rise and set of the sun. Avoid cold and keep warm. Don’t expose your skin. Otherwise, your body will be hurt.” That is to say, people should follow the course of the rise and set of the sun. If not, people will get sick. However, to look beautiful, women today would rather wear flimsy stockings in cold winter. As a saying goes, cold is from feet. Cold feet will cause many health risks as well as a deficient and cold constitution in your body.

Why do we need to get up and sleep earlier? TCM divides 24 hours per day into 12 time units. Human organs are believed to reach the climax of their functions at certain time units. The liver works hardest to clean blood between 1 to 3 am. If we don’t fall into deep sleep, the metabolism of liver cells will be affected. From 5 am to 7 am, the large intestine works actively. People need to get up to absorb nutrition and eliminate waste so as to have a fresh day.

Apart from sleeping and get-ting up earlier, sleeping position and posture are also important. Sun Simiao, or the King of Medicine, proposed the most comfortable position with head facing south and feet facing north, while lying on side, because our spine has several curves and lying flat on one’s back is not good for the body. Sun Simiao was not only the King of Medicine, but also a master of preserving health. In his book Invaluable Prescriptions for Ready Reference, he warned us not to sleep too long because long sleep impairs Qi, not to stand too long because that may hurt bones, and not to walk too long because that may injure muscles. The balanced concept of preserving health is derived from the ancient philosophy and source of TCM theory.

health preservation

A Balance Between Movement and Motionlessness

With nearly 400,000 residents in the neighbourhood, Beijing Tiantongyuan is the largest community in Asia. After dinner, parks and boulevards are full of people, engaging in various forms of physical exercises—jogging, walking, practicing Tai Chi, or simply “one leg standing”.

In China, such busy scenes can be found anywhere since the national fitness movement is flourishing. Do you remember one thousand people performing Tai Chi at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics? This long-standing Chinese Kung Fu has been included into university PE. Both Chen-style Tai Chi with strong explosive power and Yang-style Tai Chi featured as Gang (powerful motions) hidden in Rou (slow and graceful motions) attracts thousands of followers. Tai Chi helps people adjust their breath and reach a balance in natural and smooth movements.

Not to sleep too long because long sleep impairs Qi, not to stand too long because that may hurt bones, and not to walk too long because that may injure muscles. The balanced concept of preserving health is derived from the ancient philosoph.

Sports are the best inherited heath-preserving ways. Among Qigong, martial arts and Tai Chi, some exercises are difficult to learn and some others are easy to pick up. A series of exercises “Eight Pieces of Brocade” invented in the twelfth century is easy to learn, consisting of eight parts of natural and graceful movements. Each part can help cure a kind of disease. Thirteen Measures to Keep Healthy created by Sun Simiao advises people to frequently comb hair, move eyes, massage abdomen and sway waist. These movements can be practiced anytime and at any place.

As tension should alternate with relaxation, we should pay attention to strike a balance between movement and motionlessness when preserving health through sports. Martial arts and Tai Chi are “movement”, while expiration and inspiration, zazen and music, chess, calligraphy and painting are “motionless” exercises. Motionless health preservation could cheer the heart and compose the mind.

health preservation

Unity of Figure and Spirit

Soong May-ling, once the First Lady of the Republic of China, also also known as the most beautiful lady in Asia. She died at the age of 106, and even in her late years, she was in good shape, and remained clear minded and beautiful. People are eager to know her longevity secrets.

According to her private doctor, Soong May-ling liked playing the piano and painting at her young age. She started learning Chinese painting at 60 from famous artists like Huang Junbi and Chang Dai-chien. She also loved reading and retained the habit of reading books and newspapers for many years. From painting and reading, she found inner peace and was free from worries and desires. Such a mind and self-cultivation are her secrets for longevity.

If preserving health is a characteristic of TCM, nourishing the mind is the core of preserving heath. According to TCM, “Most people try to keep healthy by nourishing their body; a smart guy would try to keep healthy by nourishing his qi; a truly wise man would try to keep healthy by nourishing his mind.” At the beginning of Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon, it says that “if you can preserve your essence, you’ll be immune from diseases. If you can keep calm, you can live longer; otherwise, if you are anxious, your body will be collapsed.” Mencius also said, “To nourish the mind there is nothing better than to make the desires few.” There is a Hall of Mental Cultivation in the Forbidden City, a hall for emperors to cultivate their minds. Thus, nourishing essence, qi and mind plays an important role in traditional Chinese health preserving culture.

According to TCM, all diseases come from our mind. Our emotions would affect our organs and body. Thus, we should keep tranquil and innourish different with few desires and never lose temper in daily life. In your spare time, you could read a book with a cup of tea and listen to some light music. Psychological problems caused by imbalanced minds are the most serious threat to modern people. To have a strong body, you should protect your mind first. TCM values preventive treatment. The best doctor should make all efforts to prevent diseases. It’s unwise to receive treatment after getting illnesses. Thus, we recommend preserving health through massage and healthy diet, sports, scheduled work and rest and psychological cultivation. Prevention is not only the highest pursuit of TCM, but also the highest realm of preserving health.


Spring is a time to nourish the liver. Thus, we should eat less sour food that are contractive. In Chinese five-element culture, the liver is associated with wood, while the spleen is associated with earth. The wood overcomes the earth. Thus, we should take care of our spleen in spring and eat more food with sweet flavor.

health preservation


Head is the place where Yang Qi gathers. Using a comb to comb hair could help increase Yang Qi. Combing for 50 times per day from anterior hairline to posterior hairline could keep your hair dark and also have some curative effect for high blood pressure, insomnia and neurasthenia.

More about Chinese medicine in Confucius Institute Magazine – ConfuciusMag

Confucius Institute Magazine 26

Published in Confucius Institute Magazine.
Number 26. Volume III. May 2013.


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