I’ve been in China for about two weeks now, and if there’s one thing that has been drilled into me through Chinese sayings, actions, and what I’ve learned in my philosophy class, its that everything in China holds a lot of traditional meaning. To introduce us to some traditional cultural aspects of China, our teachers brought us to a Chinese culture school here in Shanghai.
When we first arrived, our group of 21 students was ushered into a mirrored gym for a Chinese gongfu lesson. The gongfu master at the front was clothed in traditional clothes, and we quickly realized he didn’t speak any English. I was pretty impressed with myself when I realized that I could actually understand a good amount of what he was saying to us throughout the lesson. The master explained that this style of Chinese gongfu was invented by a woman, and designed so that you can escape and defeat your opponent without being stronger than they are. Throughout the lesson, the master demonstrated different techniques and moves with his assistant, all of which involved deflection and defense. We then got to practice the moves with each other. My partner for practicing was one of my new friends, Lexi, who has a black belt in Japanese style martial arts. Our teachers were really impressed with how easily she picked up the new moves! We ended the lesson with rapid-fire punching practice, and my arms are definitely still feeling the burn.
Next, we went into a classroom next door to learn about traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Each of us sat down on a round woven cushion on the ground, while a practitioner trained in traditional Chinese medicine explained the basis of TCM methods. He first explained that there are three levels of medicine. The physical, which is what western medicine deals with, the energy level, which is what TCM is concerned with, and the psychological, which both types of medicine should have an understanding of. In China, people believe that a balance of energy governs everything from your behavior to your interactions to your health. This concept is known as yinyang. You’ve probably seen the image of the two intertwined koi fish, one light and one dark, that represents this concept. The light side, which also signifies “good” and “male” qualities, is known as Yang. The other side of the image represents “dark,” “bad,” and “female” qualities, and is known as Yin. Initially this concept fazed me because it associated negative qualities with femininity. However, in my Chinese philosophy course we discussed how all people have both yin and yang within them that can emerge in different scenarios regardless of gender.
The practitioner continued to tell us that Chinese culture believes illness comes from six external sources that can get trapped inside you: coldness, heat, wind, dampness, dryness, and fire. He explained a few of the ways each can enter you. For example, if you are sweaty and then go outside for too long, wind can enter you. Or if you are sitting too long in an air-conditioned office, coldness can enter you. In order to diagnose the problem, TCM doesn’t use any of the technology used by western doctors. Instead, practitioners will ask, smell, listen, and observe a patient, with measuring a patients pulse as the final diagnostic method.
The practitioner then proceeded to demonstrate treatments with us that are used in TCM to rebalance your yinyang. My friends tried acupuncture, cupping, and spinal realignment to cure various ailments. I’ve never heard someone’s body crack so much or so loudly as during the spinal realignment demonstrations. I volunteered to try acupuncture and moxihution simultaneously to cure the mild cold symptoms I’ve been dealing with lately. When I mentioned my throat had been hurting, the practitioner said he’d demonstrate skin scraping on me as well. First was the acupuncture. He inserted a small needle into my hand between my thumb and first finger. In TCM, this position on my hand is believed to be on the same meridian as my throat. By fixing blockages in one area of a meridian, the other areas will feel better because energy can flow. Next, the practitioner stuck a burning herb onto the end of the needle. None of this hurt, but seeing the needle sticking out of my hand with the herbs attached left me with a strange sensation. Skin scraping is about as comfortable as it sounds. As the practitioner rubbed a hard piece of plastic up and down my arms (very roughly, I still have bruises), he asked me to try swallowing. I was surprised to find that the pain I’d been experiencing for days was completely gone!
Each of my friends mentioned that they at least felt better immediately following their treatments. Although the pain in my throat came back a few minutes later, by the next day I was feeling completely fine. I went into this day as a skeptic, but now have a new appreciation for these ancient aspects of Chinese culture that are still well respected today. I don’t know if I can say I completely believe in the effectiveness of TCM as an alternative to western medicine, but I definitely experienced beneficial results. In just a few hours I learned some awesome self-defense techniques, was cured of a sore throat, and gained a deeper understanding of the culture I’m living in. What a morning!