For most of today’s 7.5 billion people, traditional medicines remain an integral part of their lives despite the continuing expansion of an already formidable modern healthcare system built on the principles of Western science and market forces.

In Asia, home to 60% of the world’s population, there is a deeprooted belief that traditional medicines hold secret cures and knowledge that Western sciences have yet to — and may never — understand and explain.

Some of that belief is undoubtedly based on ignorance, superstition or misplaced cultural loyalty, said medical sociologist Mohamed Nazrul Islam in interviews conducted before and after the 2017 release of his book, “Chinese and Indian Medicine Today: Branding Asia”.

But to dismiss it entirely as blind faith would mean the end of all enquiry into what the ancients knew and negate the value of their research published over thousands of years, said the associate professor who teaches at the United International College in Zhuhai city in China’s Guangdong province. The college is jointly owned by the Beijing Normal University and the Hong Kong Baptist University. His 220-page book, published by Springer, is a thoughtful, if rather ambitious, attempt to cover the philosophy, products and practices of the medical traditions of China and India.

Nazrul, who completed his writing in 2016 as a visiting professor at Canada’s University of British Columbia, spoke of the struggle that traditional medicines face in the modern world dominated by Western science, technology and philosophy. He acknowledges that traditional medicines have fallen short where it matters most: provide proof of efficacy, deliver healthcare on a mass scale, and compete for resources to find cures for sickness and diseases.

How did the medical knowledge of the ancients end up being relegated to the status of “alternative treatments” and “supplements”?

While Asia slept during the rise of industrial capitalism in the late 18th century, Europe advanced the principles of science and adopted industrial technology to drive its economy and military. With China’s enforced opening after its defeat in the Opium War in 1842, the practice of Western medicine spread to the country’s main ports and cities where Christian missions were most active.

“Schools for Western medical education opened in Peking, and in Canton in 1870 and Tientsin in 1881,” said Nazrul. In India, Western medicine took hold under British control through the East India Company before its formal handover to the Crown in 1858.

To keep alive their knowledge in ancient healing, China and India have been supporting a hybrid system that trains many local doctors in both Western and traditional medicines.

“Students enrolled in indigenous medical school (had) to learn a number of courses taught in Western medicine,” Nazrul writes of both countries. The systems further sought to “professionalise” their traditional medicine doctors by allowing them to also practise Western medicine “with some restrictions”.

But despite decades of official support, efforts at boosting the role of traditional medicine have largely failed. Through his research, Nazrul concludes that traditional medicine have remained stuck in a “marginal position” in the healthcare systems of both China and India.

“Western medicine dominates in the mainstream health service delivery and accounts (for a) large share of the national health budgets,” he writes.

Healthcare politics in a consumer society

Nazrul cites several factors for traditional medicines’ lack of progress. Without a robust theoretical framework, practitioners will continue to struggle to build a science out of their knowledge. There are no visible champions or articulate experts to explain traditional medicines to a skeptical world.

Traditional medicines’ focus on abstinence and the preventative aspects of healthcare runs counter to today’s consumer-driven economy. It also dooms their practitioners to a poor-paying career as the focus on illness-prevention doesn’t lead to demand for expensive equipment, pills or lucrative research grants.

Many modern ailments can be traced to our constant pursuit of instant gratification in today’s high-pressure lifestyles, Nazrul said.

People tend to over-eat or eat unhealthy foods, do not have enough exercise, abuse substances and are sleep-deprived, he said. As a result, serious illnesses develop around the brain, heart, liver, kidney and other organs that require medication, surgery or other expensive forms of treatment. Cures and the costly search for cures are critical to the health of today’s profit-driven healthcare industry.

“How do you sell a preventative lifestyle? There’s no medicine or treatment to prescribe if the doctor tells you not to smoke or consume sugars. There’s little money to be made in this type of practice,” he said. This partly explains why Chinese and Indian medical practitioners struggle to market their services, and are often viewed as irrelevant, even heretical, in the consumption-based economy.

Hope in an alternate universe

Ironically, it is the overwhelming might and spread of the Western healthcare industry that is stoking hopes for a revival in traditional medicines’ prospects.

Nazrul cites the global popularity of Chinese acupuncture and Indian yoga practices as examples of “reverse colonialism”.

Once deemed as exotic pursuits of countercultural groups and ethnic populations, acupuncture and yoga found a following in the US in the 1960s. Both practices suited the “anti-establishment” message of a generation of restless Western youth who turned to Asia’s spiritual teachings and natural healings for life’s answers. They were drawn to ancient Asia’s anti-materialism philosophy that reinforces the abstinence and preventative themes of well-being.

“Many people have become disillusioned by the high cost of Western healthcare. They also question the intense use of drugs to “cure” diseases, and various psychiatric and psychological disorders,” said Nazrul.

Because they gained acceptance in the West, acupuncture and yoga have become “cool” around the world even though modern science hasn’t, and may never, fully understand acupuncture’s ‘chi energy’ or yoga’s mindfulness training.

In revisiting the issues that concerned the world’s two oldest medical civilizations, Nazrul concludes that they are just as relevant today.

But the modern world, driven to exhaustion and conflict by the relentless focus on profit and science, will have greater urgency to consider the forgotten wisdoms of balance, harmony and abstinence.

Note: This article was first published in the South China Morning Post.

Weng Hoong Ng