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When Meridians Guide Needles Not Ships


The Dao of Healing: Christian Perspectives on Chinese Medicine by Pak-Wah Lai. Singapore: Graceworks Private Limited, 2018. Available from Graceworks Publishing and on Amazon.

All that the layman could ever want to know about the historical development and philosophical roots of both Chinese and Western medicine in a condensed and readable form: that is Dr. Pak-Wah Lai’s gift to the readers of The Dao of Healing

Why is this gift relevant for all who want to be knowledgeable and particularly those who know and love the Chinese people? The past decade has seen Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) expand its influence in Western culture[1] and gain a following even among yoga-obsessed millennials with yin yoga offered in most every fitness establishment.

Sally Yue Lin, a young Han Chinese immigrant, is upset by the trend. She laments, “In the past few years, TCM has become more popular with non-Asian Americans across North America, which makes me worried that it is becoming commodified in a similar way as yoga. If so, who is telling the stories behind this ancient tradition . . . ?”[2] In the The Dao of Healing, Dr. Lai is telling those stories and much more.

Pak-Wah Lai identifies three aims for his work: apologetics, the legitimization of a medical tradition, and an exercise in contextual theology. Even though he later states that this work is primarily for Christians, apologetics is listed as a first concern. After visiting a busy TCM hospital in Kunming, he notes:

For such Chinese and the millions of others throughout China, the legitimacy of Chinese medicine is beyond doubt. To call this esteemed tradition into question, especially by the West, would be regarded as no less than cultural imperialism . . . it is a sober reminder for Christians to take our engagement with Chinese medicine and culture carefully, lest we create an unnecessary stumbling block to the gospel . . . (p.11)

Dr. Lai’s second aim, legitimizing the Chinese medical tradition, fills the majority of the pages of his book. His thesis here is summarized in his own words:

. . . biomedicine has failed to recognize that, when it judges Chinese medicine to be “unscientific,” what it is actually demanding Chinese medicine to do is to conform to the epistemic[3] biases and expectations of Greek philosophy. (p. 107)

He notes again later:

The Greeks and the West were preoccupied with the questions of ontology[4] and epistemic certainty, while the Chinese by the network of relationships, or the yin and yang, that subsists in a human being and characterizes his relationship with his environment. (p. 283)

The author’s third aim, an exercise in contextual theology, speaks to a topic on the minds of many Chinese Christians: how can the rich cultural heritage of China be enfolded into orthodox Christianity without losing the essentials of either? Dr. Lai argues that it can and, in addition, has elements that can enrich and refresh the Christian church. He contends in The Dao of Healing that:

the theory of yinyang, the Chinese conceptions of health and disease, and ascetic practice, can contribute to our theological reflections and spiritual formation...In all likelihood, Chinese medical philosophy can shed further light on the philosophical and existential questions of the Chinese. In doing so, it provides fresh impetus and opportunities for us to contextualize biblical teachings that can better answer the questions and concerns of the Chinese.” (p. 303)

The Dao of Healing is also a gift because of its extensive history of both the Chinese and Western medical traditions. Dr. Lai begins the Chinese story with the spiritual healing of the Shang Dynasty and credits the Han with the philosophies of qi, yinyang, as well as the medical classics such as the Treatise on Cold Diseases. The Song ushered in a medical renaissance with the development of acupuncture and Chinese pharmacology. The Ming and Qing developed inoculation techniques to use against the scourge of smallpox and began to study the more accurate Western anatomy texts. Western medicine invaded China following the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s.

Lu Xun rejected Chinese medicine; Zhang Xichun attempted to assimilate the two . . . The Maoist government of the 1950-60s established a dual health-care system and mandated the modernization of Chinese medicine by integrating it with Western medicine. (p. 6-7)

Dr. Lai ends his review of Chinese medical history with the statement “Since then, Chinese medicine has continued to evolve itself through dialogue with Western medicine, and remains a prominent aspect of the pluralistic healthcare system in present-day China.” (p. 164)

His history of Western medicine is just as fascinating. He begins with the Code of Hammurabi Stele, speaks to the validity that Christians gave medicine in portraying Christ as the “Great Physician,” gives kudos to the contributions of the Greeks, English, and Germans, to mathematics and chemistry, to the first dissections, to medical instruments, to the development of cell theory, germ theory, and the first Public Health Act. Dr. Lai covers it all.

For those not convinced of the safety and validity of Chinese medicine, Pak-Wah Lai’s The Dao of Healing interestingly explains the difference between the diagnostic and research techniques of the two traditions, declaring that the aim of Chinese medical therapy is to “rebalance the yin and yang within the meridians.” (p. 208)

Perhaps most helpful, Dr. Lai describes what to expect when visiting a Chinese TCM doctor. He explains the yin and yang organs, the five vital substances of which qi is one, and maps the meridians, which determine the placement of acupuncture needles. He includes case studies of patients suffering from either external or internal “pernicious influences.” For one schooled in biomedicine, it is a fascinating new medical world!

His final chapter, Christian Perspectives on Chinese Medicine, is particularly insightful. He speaks to Chinese Christians “to be on the lookout for what coheres or does not cohere with biblical teaching . . . to explore ways of redeeming . . . indigenous cultural ideas . . . and to appropriate it to enrich the broader Christian tradition.” (p. 290) He advises Christians to not dismiss TCM simply because it is so different, but rather to consider those aspects that are distinctly in line with biblical precepts: live as stewards in harmony with creation, acknowledge and control the corruption of sin within, and practice moderation in daily living. Finally, Dr. Lai cautions Christians to use TCM when the regimes are helpful and secular, but to avoid those doctors who offer an intermingling of secular and religious healings.

Read Pak-Wah Lai’s The Dao of Healing; just think of the intelligent discussions you can have about meridians guiding needles!

Our thanks to Graceworks Publishing for supplying a copy of The Dao of Healing to our reviewer. 

Image credit: Kristoffer Trolle via Flickr. 

BJ Arthur

BJ Arthur (pseudonym) has lived in China for many years and was in Beijing in June 1989. View Full Bio


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