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Reviewed by:
  • Classical Chinese Medicine by Liu Lihong
  • Nicole Elizabeth Barnes (bio)
Liu Lihong. Classical Chinese Medicine. Edited by Heiner Fruehauf. Translated by Gabriel Weiss and Henry Buchtel with Sabine Wilms. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2019. xlviii, 644 pp. Hardcover $90.00, isbn 978-988-237-057-9.

Chinese medicine is under attack. This has been the case for ninety years, ever since the first resolution to outlaw its practice was discussed in the Ministry of Health in 1929. After nearly a century of concerted efforts to control how Chinese medicine can be researched, taught, studied, practiced, produced, and even defined, Liu Lihong has emerged as one of its staunchest and most well-regarded defenders. Originally published in 2001, the Chinese edition of his book has sold over a million copies and become a national best seller in China. This first English-language translation is the product of many people's diligent labor and is a precious resource for anyone who wishes to preserve Chinese medicine in this era of trouble.

The book begins with an informative introduction by Editor Heiner Freuhauf, a founding professor of Chinese medicine at the National University of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon. Freuhauf places Liu's work in historiographic and political context, elegantly explaining what is at stake for the theory and practice of Chinese medicine and introducing readers who do [End Page 145] not know the situation in China to Dr. Liu's mission and motives. Freuhauf includes a useful chart in which he contrasts classical Chinese medicine—the term the translators adopted for the medicine that preserves and respects knowledge found in the ancient medical classics—and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the state-sponsored and highly scientized version of Chinese medicine that dominates in China today.

The first chapter reads like a jeremiad bemoaning neglect of the medical classics in a TCM education system that relegates study of the foundational texts of Chinese medicine to elective courses. Nearly eighty pages long, it is occasionally repetitive and heavy-handed. This is likely because its key message—that neglect of the classics leaves one quite unable to practice Chinese medicine and ignorant of its true powers—certainly bears repeating. It may be hard to swallow for many young Chinese who do not know the history and assume that TCM is a worthy and loyal expression of Chinese medical tradition, as is claimed in TCM schools and textbooks. The translators might have done better to adopt a different tone in the English edition whose audience presumably has less confusion about this matter. For those practicing Chinese medicine outside of China, TCM regulations matter less since they do not dictate school curricula, hospital and clinic organization, or licensing procedures. A key insight in this chapter is that classical Chinese medicine experimentation does not register in the scientific laboratory because it is internal rather than external. Performed inside the bodies of the ancients who frequently meditated to heighten their self-perception and experimented with new drugs on themselves, internal experimentation was the method that ancient physicians used to understand how diseases and drugs functioned. Another central point is that proper study of Chinese medicine requires direct and personal mentorship with a teacher. Therefore, medical education in TCM schools that neglects both the classics and discipleship is really no education at all.

To illustrate his argument about the value of studying the medical classics, Dr. Liu selected one text in particular: Zhang Zhongjing's Shanghan zabing lun (The Treatise on Cold Damage and Miscellaneous Diseases), originally compiled during the Han dynasty in the late third century B.C.E. Chapter 2 explains the foundational concept of "cold damage" and expounds upon yin-yang theory that lies at the core of Chinese medicine and philosophy. Clearly used to teaching people for whom the living conditions and conceptual categories of ancient medical practitioners do not make intuitive sense, Dr. Liu expertly uses concrete analogies to render esoteric knowledge familiar. He likens the differences between TCM textbooks and the ancient classics to cloyingly sappy popular music and everlastingly meaningful classical music, and the adjustment of one's yin and yang to the fine-tuning of a radio dial. His...