Mao invented the idea of "traditional Chinese medicine"
Our entire modern idea of "traditional Chinese medicine" was invented by Mao and pushed by his massive propaganda machine.
But exporting Chinese medicine presented a formidable task, not least because there was no such thing as “Chinese medicine.” For thousands of years, healing practices in China had been highly idiosyncratic. Attempts at institutionalizing medical education were largely unsuccessful, and most practitioners drew at will on a mixture of demonology, astrology, yin-yang five phases theory, classic texts, folk wisdom, and personal experience.
Mao knew such medicine would be unappealing to empirically minded Westerners. He knew this because it was also unappealing to empirically minded Chinese people.
In 1923, Lu Xun, China’s most famous man of letters, reflected critically on his father’s visits to a Chinese doctor, visits that bankrupted the family and failed to produce results. “I still remember the doctor’s discussion and prescription,” Lu wrote, “and if I compare them with my knowledge now, I slowly realize that Chinese doctors are no more than a type of swindler, either intentional or unintentional, and I sympathize with deceived sick people and their families.”
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Mao understood he needed to deal with criticisms like those of Lu Xun, Wang Qingren, and Wang Chong in order for Chinese medicine to be taken seriously, both domestically and internationally. His solution was a two-pronged approach. First, inconsistent texts and idiosyncratic practices had to be standardized. Textbooks were written that portrayed Chinese medicine as a theoretical and practical whole, and they were taught in newly founded academies of so-called “traditional Chinese medicine,” a term that first appeared in English, not Chinese. Needless to say, the academies were anything but traditional, striving valiantly to “scientify” the teachings of classics that often contradicted one another and themselves. Terms such as “holism” (zhengtiguan) and “preventative care” (yufangxing) were used to provide the new system with appealing foundational principles, principles that are now standard fare in arguments about the benefits of alternative medicine.
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The second part of Mao’s project was to provide Westerners with sensational evidence of Chinese medicine’s efficacy, particularly of acupuncture analgesia. The watershed moment was in 1971, when New York Times editor James Reston wrote an article entitled “Now, Let Me Tell You About My Appendectomy in Peking.” In it, he recounted how Wu Weiran of the Anti-Imperialist Hospital had administered “a standard injection of Xylocain and Bensocain” before removing his appendix. Later, while Reston recovered, acupuncture was used to relieve pain from post-operative gas. Eager to believe in mystical Eastern miracle workers, credulous Westerners misreported the story, claiming that acupuncture had been used as an anesthetic during Reston’s appendectomy, a falsehood that still has currency. Fascination with acupuncture exploded, allowing the Chinese Communist Party to put together a media blitz touting its extraordinary powers, complete with what appear to have been intentionally faked surgeries.
This deception was particularly impressive, given that acupuncture’s utility as a surgical analgesic should have been dubious for any historian of anesthesia or Chinese medicine. Hua Tuo, a legendary physician of the Han Dynasty, was famous for being the first person to perform surgery on an anesthetized patient. Yet despite expertise as an acupuncturist, Hua chose to anesthetize his patient (thankfully!) with what was likely a mixture of cannabis and wine. Similarly, the first modern recorded incidence of surgery using general anesthesia was a partial mastectomy performed by Japanese surgeon Hanaoka Seishu in 1804, who, while familiar with acupuncture, nevertheless followed in Hua's footsteps and pursued pharmacological approaches to surgical pain relief.
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The reason so many people take Chinese medicine seriously, at least in part, is that it was reinvented by one of the most powerful propaganda machines of all time and then consciously marketed to a West disillusioned by its own spiritual traditions.