TCM: Trick or Treatment?

Claims about what Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can do often swing from the miraculous to the mundane. We have heard it has the power to cure terminal cancer patients, but also that its herbal teas are good for the common cold. But what exactly is it? What can it do? To better understand, some of Shanghai’s specialists spoke about six of TCM’s most common practices.

Chinese Herbal Medicine

Chinese Herbal Medicine emphasises naturally occurring substances, including not just plants, but also exotic animal products. And while bear gallbladders and snakes are in the pharmacopeia, herbs dominate 80 to 90 per cent of treatments. Formulas vary by patient, but there are certain principles. Doctor Wang Zhiwei from WZW Medical Clinic explains: “It is like deploying an army. No matter how the formula changes, there are four basic elements: a king (the herb used most) who leads the army, a subject who implements the king’s orders and assistants and messengers to help the other substances kick in.”

RMB 1,500-3,000 for a single treatment for Dr Wang’s special winter formula at WZW Medical Clinic


TCM believes qi (life energy) circulates through the body in various meridians (channels where the qi flows) and that the blockage of them causes health problems. Acupuncture attempts to eliminate this blockage. “Acupuncture helps to deal with diseases that are buried deeply, which herbs or other Chinese medicines can’t treat,” Wang says. “Usually it helps with conditions related to the muscles and bones, such as joint pain.”

RMB 400 per session at WZW Medical Clinic


Holding a moxa (a thick, burning piece of incense) packed with mugwort over your skin might sound a bit like voodoo, but moxibustion doesn’t exactly smoke disease out of your body. The idea is that the body is stimulated by the heat to allow better circulation of qi in the meridians. “It strengthens the body’s resistance to disease,” says Doctor Wen Fanghua of Root-Healing Wellness Centre, “The effectiveness of moxibustion depends on the quality of the mugwort and the therapist’s attentiveness.”

RMB 400 per session at WZW Medical Clinic, RMB 260 per session at Root-Healing Wellness Centre


Those sensitive to the smokiness of moxibustion, should try guasha (literally, ‘scraping away disease’). Here, a practitioner presses a scraping board on the skin along meridians, rupturing capillary vessels and leaving bruises. Professor Xu Lieming from the University of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Shanghai Shuguang Hospital explains, “Scraping stimulates the nervous system and the immune system, which put the body into the mode to fight bacteria.“

RMB 400 per session at WZW Medical Clinic, RMB 100 per session at Root-Healing Wellness Centre


This treatment works by placing hot cups on the body, creating suction and pulling the skin and muscles taut. The concept is more or less the same as guasha, and it’s simple to apply. Xu notes, “There are plastic cups for doing it at home. It’s less effective, but very safe”.

RMB 400 per session at WZW Medical Clinic, RMB 80 per session for one body part at Root-Healing Wellness Centre

Tuina (Chinese Medicinal Massage)

TCM is a holistic system, seeing connections throughout the body. As a result, even a foot massage becomes more than just a foot massage. “Your foot can be seen as a standing man,” says Wen, “and his organs are reflected as acupressure points on your foot.” Chinese medical massages are rougher than other types of massage, sometimes leaving pain afterward. Wang said, “It’s like sore muscles from a workout; the normal reaction to tuina is mild, lasting only one or two days."

RMB 400 per session for 45 minutes at WZW Medical Clinic, RMB 420 an hour at Root-Healing Wellness Centre

Root-Healing Wellness Centre. 4F, Lane 398, 23 Dagu Lu. Tel: 6340 1005

Shanghai Talk readers receive a 10 per cent discount on treatments at Root-Healing when they bring in the February 2012 issue.

WZW Medical Clinic. Suite 509A, 1 Fuxing Zhong Lu. Tel: 6391 9295. Web: