“What’s in a name?” Rather more than Shakespeare’s Juliet would imagine; indeed, more things than are dreamt of in her philosophy, to invoke Hamlet. Confucius teaches us the importance of names. One of the central tenets of his teachings is zhèng ming, the “rectification of names.” He says: “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” Consequently, the naming or renaming of a thing is a grave and serious matter, and not one to be undertaken lightly or for trivial reasons. To rename traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as “Oriental medicine,” “Asian medicine” or any other term is to obscure the richness, depth and unity of humanity’s first and oldest continuously practiced system of health care. Our profession is traditional, it is Chinese, and it is medicine, What other name should it have but “Traditional Chinese Medicine?” When I first came to the United States, I was surprised to find Chinese restaurants everywhere. While the food was, by and large, similar to what I was accustomed to eating in my native land, there were many compromises made to Western tastes.
Sometimes, a dish was sweetened a little more than it would be if prepared for Chinese customers or certain pungent ingredients were omitted or reduced, to better accommodate the Western diner’s palate. Looking over a menu one day, I came across a dish I had never heard of before. Even its name seemed foreign to me. Thinking that perhaps this was some rare regional delicacy, I ordered a plate, from curiosity if
nothing else. From the first bite, it was obvious to me that this was not Chinese. The choice of vegetables was odd, and the meat did not pair well with the sauce. In fact, it tasted distinctly American to me. When I finished eating, I asked to speak to the manager, to see what I could learn about this strange dish. The manager, a Chinese man, was glad to explain it to me. There have been Chinese restaurants in America for a long time, he said, serving authentic Chinese food to an exclusively Chinese clientele. In the late 19th century, it seems there was a sudden interest in Chinese cuisine here in the States. Restaurant owners, good businessmen that they were, knew that they would have to adapt to their new customers’ tastes to take advantage of this trend. Their cooks, using Chinese ingredients and techniques, produced a dish that was “Chinese” enough for an American, but too American to be Chinese. The result was “chop suey,” a purely American form of Chinese cuisine, appearing on menus alongside more traditional dishes. It was not the real thing, but was close enough to satisfy the inexperienced and unlearned. In Asia, one encounters a number of systems of healing based on the principles of traditional Chinese medicine. One does not, however, encounter “Oriental medicine” or any similar term used anywhere in Asia. Simply put, there is no such thing as “Oriental medicine” outside of the West. These terms are, in fact, little more than a Westernized abstraction, a sort of intellectual short-hand, to refer to the varieties of healing arts and sciences developed, primarily in East Asia, from the foundations established by the great scholars and practitioners of the Chinese medical tradition.