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A Historical Perspective of Ethical Practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine

The development of ethics in Chinese medicine goes back thousands of years and is revealed in the many stories of outstanding doctors and the principles that guided their work as healers. One of them is Dr. Dong Feng who lived on Lushan Mountain, Jiangxi province, during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280). Dong Feng never refused patients no matter how ill they were. He never received money for his services but instead, he asked his recovered patients to thank him by planting apricot trees in his garden. Those who had been slightly ill were asked to plant one tree, those who had been seriously ill were asked to plant five. Years later, Dong Feng’s garden had grown into an apricot orchard. In early spring, the trees blossomed. And in summer, the trees were overburdened with fruit. Every year when the apricots were ripe, Dong put a container in his granary and a notice on the wall, saying those who wanted to buy apricots could exchange grain for them. One container of apricots was worth one container of grain. People were trusted to do the exchange themselves without telling him. Dong kept a small quantity of grain for himself and gave the rest to poor orphans, widows, childless elderly people and hungry travelers. People spoke highly of Dong’s kindness and manners. His story has inspired generation after generation of TCM doctors to believe that the spirit of medical practice is to help people. In fact, Xinglin – which translates into “forest of apricot trees”, became a word that means “doctors”.

Another story came from Doctor Sun Simiao who lived during the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) wrote the earliest article about TCM ethics. This article, titled Da Yi Jing Cheng, which means Great Doctor, sets out the principles of a good practitioner. Dr. Sun Simiao was called Yao Wang (King of herbal medicine) because of his contribution to Chinese medicine.

In his writing, the fundamental of ethics of a TCM doctor is that they must be knowledgeable, highly skilled, and dedicated to continuously improving their skills to best serve the patients. Secondly, he/she must have a professional manner, including positive attitudes, a serious demeanor, be properly dressed, confident and well grounded. He or she should also have a calm and harmonious spirit and mind, a sympathetic heart, a willingness to save people from suffering and be prepared to sacrifice his or her own interests – or even life – to save others.

Additionally, a great doctor treats all people with equal kindness, whether they are rich or poor, old or young, male or female, friends or enemies, pretty or ugly. He or she is ready to help patients whether the case is difficult or easy, whether it’s day or night, hot or cold, and regardless of the practitioner’s own hunger, thirst, or fatigue. The list of things a doctor must not do includes talking loudly, making flattering comments, gossiping, saying bad things about other doctors, focusing on making a profit from helping people, and prescribing expensive, difficult to find medicines to patients who are rich.

In TCM, humanity and altruism are the heart of ethics. That is why the names of many Chinese pharmacies and clinics to this day include the word “Ren” which means “loving, benevolence and kind heartedness”.

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