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Home > Education > Theory > Oriental & Western Medicine

The Duty of Oriental and Western Medicine

By Hun Young Cho
Translated by Kihyon Kim

From "Oriental Medicine, A Modern Interpretation"

Here's an insightful interpretation of the difference between Oriental and Western medicine from the eyes of a practitioner of both Western and Oriental medicine. This article comes from a book called "Oriental Medicine, A Modern Interpretation" by Hun Young Cho, translated into English by Kihyon Kim. It was originally published in Korean in the year of 1934 and updated in 1946, soon after the United Nations were formed, and should be read with that understanding in mind.

The Duty of Oriental and Western Medicine

There is a worldwide trend towards Oriental medicine in recent times. Five years ago, I heard a report regarding the establishment of the Oriental Herbal Medicine Research Committee in the United Nations. In Tokyo and other areas, discussions on reviving Oriental medicine have been given considerable emphasis. In Korea, people are still receiving plenty of Oriental medical treatments, so discussions on reviving Oriental medicine with the implication of re-establishing it are not relevant. However, further development, elevation and improvement of Oriental medicine is the vital question confronting us. The first thing that is needed when discussing the subject of Oriental medicine, above anything else, is the proper understanding of Oriental medicine itself. Whether one promotes, discards, disagrees with or supports Oriental medicine, without correct understanding of the medicine itself, one should not criticize its validity. To properly understand Oriental medicine, critical comparisons to Western medicine are absolutely necessary.

It is true that bias cannot be avoided in discussing Oriental medicine while looking only from the perspective of Oriental medicine. Also, a biased opinion cannot be avoided in discussing methods outside of Western medicine when coming from a contemporary scientific standpoint. Hence, through comparing and contrasting Oriental and Western Medicine to properly understand Oriental medicine and after clearly recognizing its medical value, society should be educated so that they can have a strong faith in the significance of the existence of Oriental medicine. As the public recognizes its value, public and government support can be acquired. Subsequently, necessary facilities such as research institutes, learning centers, schools, hospitals, etc. will be established. I recognized this point early and devoted every possible effort for seven years so far for the modernization, scientific verification and socialization of Oriental medicine. At this time, I am writing an outline of my humble opinions open to the friendly criticisms and guidance of the readers.

One often hears about the developments of modern medicine or medical technology, but it is an undeniable fact that the moaning of the sick among us is becoming louder and louder. The increase in the so-called modern diseases such as tuberculosis, neurasthenia and all disorders of the digestive system cannot help but put a frown of concern onto our faces.

So-called civilized or modern diseases imply that these diseases have increased in recent times among the people of civilized countries, but upon deeper inspection, it signifies that modern medicine was unable to defend against or eliminate these diseases. Undoubtedly, it is true that complicated living conditions make it easy for people to catch these diseases. The invention of fighter planes was followed with the creation of anti-aircraft guns. When battleships showed their prowess, submarines and torpedo boats were devised. So it is the weakness of modern or Western medicine that it could not alleviate the diseases caused by the stress of modern society even with the power of science.

In a country like the United States, non-pharmaceutical, natural medical schools have considerable influence and try to treat diseases without using drugs from modern hospitals. Recently in Japan, there has been a sudden rise in the use of many kinds of folk medicines. This development illustrates that modern medicine has been unable to satisfy those patients who are receiving these natural treatments. However, since we have received great benefits from Western medicine, I am not trying to slight or attack Western medicine with these statements. It is solely due to the benefit of modern medicine through the development of serology that there exist many effective preventive measures such as the smallpox vaccine. Due to the development of microbiology, national health institutions are empowered in the prevention of epidemics and many other diseases. As a result of that, a countless number of souls have avoided the misery of epidemics. We must praise the strong points of Western medicine and at the same time supplement the weak points. In my opinion, the method of supplementation can be adopted only from Oriental medicine.

Oriental medicine bases its root in philosophy and Western medicine has built its foundation on natural science. Accordingly, their methods are different and their roles are divided so that the strengths of Oriental medicine are the weaknesses of Western medicine and the superior aspects of Western medicine are inferior in Oriental medicine. The former is holistic and the latter is analytical. The former puts its effort into the observation of living phenomena and the latter puts emphasis on the investigation of the structure of matter. Although Western medicine is superior in defending and eliminating external pathogens that threaten life, Oriental medicine is superior in fundamentally cultivating the internal life force to increase health. One can compare the duties of Western and Oriental medicine in protecting life or health of the human body to the duties of laws and morals in maintaining peace and order in a society. If both do not support each other, a prosperous society cannot be expected. Having faith in the omnipotence of Western medicine by looking at surgical management or efficacious medicine for curing syphilis, malaria, etc. while disregarding Oriental medicine is a biased faith. Unconditionally protecting Oriental medicine and attacking and deploring Western medicine in cases where chronic illness was easily cured through Oriental herbal medicine is an equally narrow opinion.

Morality is fundamental and law is temporary. In a similar way, Oriental medicine is a "root-treating medicine" and Western medicine is a "manifestation-treating medicine." Governmental power, for example, is exercised in unavoidable situations for the safety of the public, but morality has a more effective function than law in the daily life of all people.

It is natural for the authorities to adopt Western medicine for prevention of epidemics and forensic medicine, but in actuality, it is Oriental medicine that has contributed more in quantity than all the free medical treatments by the government for the health of each individual. Next, I'm going to state a few concrete examples.

Holistically Treating Medicine and Locally Treating Medicine

Oriental Medicine is a "holistic medical approach" while Western medicine is a "localized (symptomatic) approach." For example, the cause of sinusitis in Western medicine is attributed to an increase in pyogenic bacteria in the sinus cavities (maxillary, ethmoidal, frontal and sphenoidal), which creates pus. Thus, performing surgery in that region has become the method of treatment.

In Oriental medicine, on the other hand, the cause of sinusitis is not found in the nasal region. One's constitution and many physiological abnormalities are holistically observed and synthesized in order to inquire and identify the cause of sinusitis in that person. Even in the treatment, Oriental medicine does not directly perform artificial treatment such as surgery on the diseased region. Rather, physiological abnormalities are holistically and naturally regulated in order to eliminate the disease phenomenon in the nasal region.

Besides the experience of the author in the healing of sinusitis without surgery, researchers have tested the effectiveness of Oriental medical herbs many times and reported successful findings.

Let us now put aside whether that treatment is superior or inferior and investigate the theoretical basis of holistic medical treatment.

It is not incorrect to say that the cause of sinusitis is the pyogenic bacteria acting on the sinus cavity, but thinking one step further, it is true that in any healthy body, pyogenic, pneumonia, diphtheria and influenza bacteria are always present in the nasal and the sinus cavities. Therefore, the cause of sinusitis is not in the pyogenic bacteria but in the reduction of resistance that suppresses and restrains pyogenic bacteria. Sinusitis is called Bi Yuan (nose-pool) and Nao Lou (brain discharge) if severe. The cause of it can be largely categorized as follows:

  1. Sinusitis due to Internal Injury (Yang Deficiency sinusitis and Yin Deficiency sinusitis).
  2. Sinusitis due to External Invasion

(1) originates from physical constitution and (2) is due to the common cold. Regardless of Internal or External sinusitis, the sinusitis that accompanies an abnormality of the genito-urinary system is called Taiyang Bi Yan and sinusitis that accompanies an abnormality in the digestive system is called Yangming Bi Yan.

The specific Oriental medical treatment for this sinusitis will be presented at some other opportunity. Rather than stating whether holistic treatment or localized treatment is better, either can be better according to the type of a disease. There are times when the former must be used, and times when the latter must be used. Sometimes both treatments must be combined. Thus, viewed from the standpoint of medicine, both are utterly necessary.

As a result of overly venerating localized or analytical medicine, strange events can frequently occur when viewed from the standpoint of holistic medicine. The most appropriate example of this is the #606 (penicillin) injection incident regarding a dentist which was repeatedly reported in the newspaper recently. It became a judicial issue and the judgement which was passed made #606 injections by dentists unlawful. This is a truly humorous thing when viewed from an Oriental medical standpoint. It is like lawfully preventing a dentist, who has been granted the privilege to treat dental disorders, from eliminating the cause of the dental disorder. The reason is that an abnormality frequently occurs in the tooth region due to syphilis, which is easily treated with penicillin. My point is not a discussion about the question of #606 injection privilege, but rather, about the fault of limiting the treatment of the dental disorder to the mouth by isolating dentistry away from treating the cause.

According to the channel theory of Oriental medicine, abnormalities or diseases of the reproductive and urinary system react on the Conception, Governing, Urinary Bladder and Kidney channels.6 Erosion of the nose, loss of the voice and decaying of the tooth root occur frequently when syphilis invades those regions. Anyone can observe, if they pay close attention, that women develop toothaches and certain abnormalities in the mouth during pregnancy and menstruation. Since the oral region is at the end of the Conception channel, disorders of the reproductive system are clearly reflected in that region and disorders of the tooth root due to syphilis are a common occurrence. Thus, from the holistic viewpoint it seems a major contradiction not to let dentists eliminate the cause of dental disorder. When treating the disease of a human being, who by nature is a holistic organism, such a blunder seems quite obvious as a result of adopting the "locally treating" theory.

Naturally Treating Medicine and Artificially Treating Medicine

One can view Oriental medicine as the "natural medicine" and Western medicine as the "artificial medicine." In a strict sense, natural treatment cannot be a medicine. Also, a purely artificial treatment cannot exist apart from the natural healing power of a living body. It is classified in such a way only through its main focus. The former guides and promotes natural healing power to eliminate disease through the normal functions of the living body itself and the latter puts effort in artificially adopting emergency measures to eliminate the disease.

Here too, we cannot discuss the superiority or inferiority of Oriental and Western medicine. According to the disease, there are many cases where artificial medicine must be used. Most surgical disorders must be treated by Western medicine.

Orthopedic medicine or optometry, which can be viewed as semi-medicine, can easily treat disorders that are quite difficult to treat using Oriental medicine.

However, advocating the superiority of surgery for all diseases just on those grounds is not proper. For example, there are many instances of appendicitis and otitis being cured without surgery using the application of one or two packs of herbs according to the Oriental treatment method. In cases like these, there are some Western medical doctors who say, "Diseases of humans were made to heal naturally, so getting cured with Oriental herbs merely means that the disease was at the level where it could have been healed without surgery." This is a statement that will remain unsettled no matter how much one argues. Even if the disease is at the level where Western doctors feel surgery is absolutely necessary, the disease cured by Oriental herbs cannot be returned to the original state to be tested. It is also impossible to return a person to life who died because of surgery to check to see whether they could have lived without surgery. Here, we can only wait for fair judgement from the public to see which is correct.

Appendicitis, in Oriental medicine, is given medical terms such as Blood Accumu- lation (Shang Han Theory), Blood Hernial disorder (Hernial disorder) and inguinal carbuncle (external medicine). They all have the same meaning, but the treatment methods are not fixed according to the medical terminology.

Another example of Western technique is the application of ice for a febrile disease. Everyone knows that large quantities of heat are consumed when ice is melting and as a general rule, a temperature over 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 degrees Fahrenheit) can be fatal. To prevent this from occurring, cold ice is artificially applied to the head and heart region in order to reduce the heat. This method is not without some benefits, but it has the following disadvantages:

  1. Physics already has proven that evaporating-heat requires seven times more calories than melting-heat. Therefore, consuming heat through sweating rather than through the ice is the wisest method.
  2. The best method for reducing the heat of the human body is by sweating; applying ice actually hinders sweating.
  3. To make one area extremely cold when the whole body is warm is not a good idea. Doesn't glass or pottery immediately break when there is discrepancy of temperatures in different parts?

Aside from these points, there are many other disadvantages to the Western approach when assessed through Oriental medicine. So in these situations, I believe that resolutely adopting the "naturally treating medicine" is correct.

An injection is artificial while taking medicine internally is natural. For example, a pancreatic hormone injection is given in diabetes. It is natural for all substances other than air to be assimilated into the body through digestive organs, but injecting a certain substance directly into blood vessels is unnatural. In Western medicine, a hormone preparation must be injected because of the concern for the change in its properties if it is passed through the digestive tract. However, in natural healing medicine, the person's pancreatic endocrine function is promoted instead of borrowing the pancreatic hormone from other animals. "Earth controls Water"10 indeed demonstrates the opposing relation-ship between the pancreas (Earth) and Kidney (Water). Thus, this endocrine relationship was already known in the Orient thousands of years ago.

To explain the Oriental medical treatment of diabetes in modern terms, the treatment method chosen is to ingest Oriental herbs through the digestive organs to have a kind of external hormonal function toward the central endocrine nerves of the pancreas to recover pancreatic endocrine function and to totally restore glucose assimilating function.

Structural Medicine and Phenomenal Medicine - Immobile Medicine and Mobile Medicine

Western medicine is "structural medicine" and Oriental medicine is "phenomenal medicine." Western medicine is "immobile (fixed) medicine" and Oriental medicine is "mobile (flexible) medicine." The foundation of the former is in anatomy and the basis of the latter is in the study of syndromes. The former looks for the cause of illness within the changes in the organism's structure and the latter identifies it by the abnormalities in physiological phenomena. Here also, the relative superiority and inferiority between Western and Oriental medicine should not be discussed since aspects of their roles are different. To give a few examples of the diseases that are treated more advantageously with "phenomenal medicine" or "mobile medicine," I would first of all cite mental illness. Mental illness is a subtle reactive phenomenon to a physiological abnormality. Therefore, to look for the cause of illness in the structures of the brain and the spine can only be considered an impossible task. Mental illness, when correctly observed and treated from the standpoint of phenomenal medicine, is an illness that can be cured with one to two packs of herbs at the time of onset.

The cause of mental illness is diagnosed through observing symptoms of mental illness such as:

  • type of emotional expression;
  • type of illusion or fantasy;
  • movement;
  • pulse quality;
  • facial color;
  • season of onset;
  • time of progression or decline in the condition of illness;
  • foods enjoyed commonly and
  • abnormal sensation or location on the channel pathway.

Another example of the disadvantages of "immobile medicine" over "mobile medicine" is the use of calcium injections for lung disease. According to reports on anatomy, areas of a cadaver where traces of the tuberculosis virus were overcome are greater than 80 percent. Since calcium surrounded tuberculosis bacteria in those areas, calcium injections are given to the tuberculosis patient. Observing this through Oriental medicine, there is a big inconsistency because: 1. Even if calcium is needed, it should be taken through the digestive organs with calcium containing foods and assimilated more naturally through other organs. Injecting mineral calcium directly into the bloodstream does not seem beneficial. 2. Tuberculosis bacteria is a Yang type of bacteria and in contrast to gonorrhea, which is a Yin type of bacteria, it is a germ that is most active when the body temperature is high. This is supported by the fact that pulmonary tuberculosis becomes worse during summer and in the afternoon, dangerous during adolescence and is aggravated during excitement. Since the rise in body temperature by a calcium injection can be proven by the thermometer, it is definitely detrimental to treatment of the disease.

Root-Treating Medicine and Manifestation-Treating Medicine

Oriental medicine is the "root-treating medicine" and Western medicine is the "manifestation-treating medicine." Oriental medicine is superior in the treatment of the root cause of a disease and Western medicine is superior in emergency management.

For example, there is the condition of hyperchlorhydria or excess secretion of stomach acid. Western medicine is superior in neutralizing the already secreted excess amount of stomach acid with something like sodium bicarbonate to prevent harm to the stomach wall, but Oriental medicine is a must in order to regulate physiological abnormality to fundamentally stop the over-secretion of stomach acid.

Hyperchlorhydria in Oriental medicine is called Tun Suan Syndrome and its cause is said to be, "Wood overacting on Earth" or "Liver overacting on Spleen." In other words, acid digestive juices of the Liver channel system are said to overcome alkaline digestive juices of the Spleen channel system (which includes the pancreas). The secretion of digestive juices is regulated to prevent excess and deficiency through the external hormonal function of Oriental herbs. Since most kinds of chronic disorders are like that, Root-treating medicine is the superior treatment here.

Defensive Medicine and Health-Cultivating Medicine

Western medicine is "defensive medicine" and Oriental medicine is "health- cultivating medicine." In artificially defending against external disturbance through disinfection, sterilization, serum injection, etc., Oriental medicine cannot compare with Western medicine. In strengthening resistance toward disease by cultivating the internal life force and balancing physiological regulation, Western medicine cannot compare with Oriental medicine. When examining these points, Oriental and Western medicine absolutely must not oppose each other, but must mutually cooperate to give the best possible medical treatment.

Internal Medicine and External Medicine

Oriental medicine is "internal medicine" and Western medicine is "external medicine." The Oriental medical doctor even tries to treat the external or structural disorders with internal medicine and the Western doctor tries to treat the internal disorder through surgical treatment (external intervention).

There are many cases where internal treatment is necessary when the cause of external disorder is internal such as with skin disorders and there are cases where surgical treatment is necessary when the internal disease is in the late stage.

Therefore, if Oriental and Western medicine communicate and complement each other well, we can avoid leisurely treating external disorders which could be quickly treated with surgery and we can avoid great sacrifices resulting from surgery for internal disorders which could be cured simply with internal medication.

Standardized Medicine and Adaptable Medicine

Western medicine chooses "standardization" and Oriental medicine chooses "adaptation." Western medicine, needless to say, does not ignore the uniqueness of individuals, but it is true that when observing the disease, an isolated discipline called pathology is established to always try to put the disease into the frame of certain universally valid rules of science. It even tries to establish a universal treatment method. Undoubtedly, if that were possible, it would be very fortunate from the standpoint of medical application, but in actuality, it is a difficult problem. For example, in a common cold, there can be among its symptoms, existence or absence of sweat, cough, sputum, nasal congestion, dryness of nose, nasal phlegm, loss of appetite, indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, chills, etc., the combination of which are clinically different syndromes in Oriental medicine. There are many occasions where medicine must not be used as if all common cold syndromes were the same. That is the reason for the development of the Shang Han Theory in Oriental medicine. Whether it is a lung disease or neurasthenia, the symptoms and treatment methods are not uniform.

To give another example, consider beriberi. The cause is said to be a deficiency of vitamin B-1 according to modern medicine. It is true that the symptoms of beriberi will appear in animals not supplied with vitamin B-1 and there is a deficiency of vitamin B-1 in the body of beriberi patients. Accordingly, ingesting a lot of vitamin B-1 is the method chosen by Western medicine for the treatment of beriberi. However, there are many cases where no matter how much one ingests and injects vitamin B-1, beriberi does not get cured. This is definitely a weakness of the standardized treatment method.

When viewed according to Oriental medicine, even if there is an inseparable relationship between beriberi and vitamin B-1, it is not so much a lack of vitamin B-1 in the diet of the beriberi patient (there is a possibility of that), but rather, a decline in the ability to assimilate B vitamins. The cause of decline in the assimilative function is in a person's physical constitution and abnormalities in weather conditions such as environmental temperature or dampness. This is supported by the fact that beriberi occurs frequently during damp weather and is more severe for the person living in a damp environment; thus, the relationship between weather and beriberi.

A person's constitution determines why person A gets beriberi and person B does not, though they eat the same foods and lead the same lifestyle in the same family. Therefore, the treatment method does not become fixed by a diagnosis of beriberi in Oriental medicine.

When viewed from the standpoint of Western medicine which tries to identify the "principal disease" and the "principal medicine," it is not unreasonable to have thoughts of ambiguity or insufficiency and develop doubt about the possibility of Oriental medicine in the treatment of diseases. Having a guiding principle within the ambiguity is the special characteristic of Oriental medicine. This is not limited to medicine, but is true in all aspects of Oriental culture.

India's poet Tagore has said that Oriental civilization is like the forest and the Western civilization is like the brick house. It is a most fitting comment. No matter how large a brick house is, the number of bricks can be calculated. But when one confronts a large forest, its vastness is indescribable. The types and shapes of plants and trees that exist cannot be known and are all different. However, within its complicated distinctive features, we can still find the uniform rule of nature. Plants that breed in damp ground are located in areas of high humidity, plants of shaded ground in dark, dry areas and plants of sunshine in bright, open areas. Not even a branch or a leaf diverges from this rule. This is the way in which Oriental medicine can make sense of seeming ambiguity and the profound laws within vastness. Oriental medicine, while disapproving of universally valid treatment methods, includes principles which have universally valid legitimacy. As always, the proof is best judged by the results of treatment effectiveness. So words are not needed as much here. I will only say that medicine may be divided into two types; standardized medicine and adaptable medicine.

Medicine Used by Government and Medicine Used by Common People

Western medicine, in contrast to Oriental medicine, is the medicine most appropriate for use by the government. For the prevention of epidemics in a country or for judicially related medical needs such as blood type, finger prints, autopsy, etc., Western medicine is most effective. That is why the support of the government has always been given to Western medicine.

Those who are concerned about Oriental medicine should remember that it is always in a disadvantageous position compared to modern medicine which has formed a trinity with government authority and monetary resources.

Western and Oriental medicine should not oppose each other. It is not a matter of which one is superior. Though the duties undertaken and the direction of contribution may differ, when looking from a wide standpoint as a medicine, there is a feeling that Oriental and Western medicine are like the two wings of a bird. When both fully communicate, complement and cooperate, then it will be possible to give the best in medical treatment.  

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