WM was codified during the Industrial Age and so considers the body in terms of its physical and chemical properties. In contrast, TCM developed in the prescience era and is, therefore, based on the observation of nature. In the more than 5,000 years of Chinese civilization, a unique way of thinking has developed, which has deeply influenced every aspect of Chinese life, including medicine. The three main philosophies are Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, all of which have profoundly influenced Chinese thought, behavior, and health care. TCM emerged from this milieu.
The main principle of Taoism is to follow the way of nature and attempt to live in harmony with it. TCM’s definition of health and disease is based on the harmonization or the disharmony, respectively, of the body with the nature of the body itself. When the body is in balance with the outside world and within itself, the person is considered healthy. Disease is a deviation from balance, and the TCM treatment is to restore balance. TCM treatment entails regulatory adjustment of the body. In conventional WM, disease is defined as an abnormal disorder of structure or function associated with specific symptoms and signs and caused by external factors such as pathogens and internal dysfunctions such as cancer cells. Treatment is aimed at suppression or elimination, i.e. allopathic.
Confucianism dictates the social hierarchy insofar as the nation rules over society at large, and societal order holds a superior position in relation to the family, which in turn takes precedence over the individual. For example, when the Chinese address an envelope, we put the country first, followed by the province, the city, the street, and then the person—just the opposite of the Western way. When we look at a disease, we consider the diseased tissue, organ, or bodily system as part of the whole body, understanding that the parts affect the whole and vice versa. We do not extract the disease from the system to address it in isolation because the sick part is an element of the collective body. This is the root of holism in TCM. When we treat the infection, we think of it in terms of the entire body not just the pathogens; we would never think of treating the pathogens in isolation. In contrast, the philosophy of Western individualism has given rise to isolating the disease from the rest of the body and dealing with the disease without considering how the whole body affects the diseased part or the diseased part affects the entire body. Thus, a Western-trained doctor will primarily or exclusively focus on the anti-infectious agents and thereby lose sight of the global environment in which the infectious disease is affecting the human body, thereby only using various antibiotics to address the microbials.
Buddhism came from India to China, where it evolved into its own religion, i.e. Zen. Buddhism holds that there is no savior coming from heaven, and so the individual must save him- or herself. TCM follows this concept and stresses self-healing. TCM proposes that health is a birthright and that the body has the power to heal itself. Healing is done by the mind and the body and helped by external medical interventions. Medications and procedures can only help the body heal; they cannot take over the task of healing. This is very different from WM, which is overly reliant on external intervention; managing the disease is the main concern, and health maintenance is too often ignored. These differences showed on different protocols these two medicines adopted. MCM try to integrating them.