From personal to popular: the Westernization of traditional Chinese medicine

The curious experience of watching a culturally Asian practice become popular and trendy.

If you grew up in a Chinese household, you’ve probably heard your parents mention the concept of holding too much heat, or yang, in your body. As my mom is a pharmacist, in my family this kind of talk was always carefully tempered with conversations around Western medicine.

Nevertheless, when I had a fever, my parents always gave me acetaminophen (no brand name Tylenol in a pharmacist’s house!) along with a bowl of winter melon soup to promote yin, or cold.

Fast-forward to 2020 and suddenly mentions of yin and yang are just about everywhere.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) treatments like acupuncture, cupping, and herbal medicine are more visible and are sometimes covered by extended health benefits as well.

And mainstream media is paying attention too; who could forget when Michael Phelps put cupping on the world stage during the 2016 Olympics?

Michael Phelps in 2016 Olympics with cupping marks. Photo Credit: HuffPost.

TCM even reached pop culture visibility in Katy Perry’s Never Really Over music video. Note how Perry uses acupuncture (with pink, bedazzled needles!) and cupping (with heart-shaped cups, of course) as the wellness treatment of the day to get over a breakup.

Katy Perry with acupuncture in Never Really Over music video screenshot.
Photo Credit: Vogue

Effectiveness debate aside, it’s clear that the popularity of TCM is growing. However, it’s not just Asians who are embracing it. In the past few years we’ve seen articles from Western entertainment sources like Elle, BuzzFeed, Nylon, W, and even Cosmopolitan on how TCM can help with everything from stress to fertility to acne.

Suddenly these culturally rich and historic practices are being commodified as the latest new age treatment of the day. As Western audiences move their focus from health and the treatment of illness to preventive medicine and holistic wellness, practices that were once exclusive to TCM are increasingly being offered by North American spas and clinics. And with that expansion, there’s been a growth in non-Chinese people practicing Chinese medicine.

More than once, this has led to a momentarily awkward exchange where a non-Asian practitioner begins to tell me about the history of a treatment in China with a question in their eyes, wondering if I’ll either already know what they’re about to tell me or if I’ll oppose their version.

And while I thoroughly enjoyed my first cupping session, I did briefly wonder what my grandparents would make of the heart-shaped cups my blonde-haired, blue-eyed acupuncturist used that left adorable, crimson marks on my back and shoulders.

Heart cups. Photo Credit: ITM World

Is the recent “trendiness” of TCM a sign of a society willing to expand definitions of wellness? Or is it indicative of cultural appropriation? After all, shouldn’t the very people who’ve practiced TCM historically be the ones to profit from its rise to the top of the Google ranks?

Like yoga before it, TCM is a cultural practice that will have some growing pains as it expands into the mainstream. And while we don’t necessarily need to gatekeep this practice exclusively for the Asian community, we can insist on holding TCM professionals accountable.

If the person delivering your services respects TCM, they will acknowledge the people and lineage that the practice comes from.

Traditional Chinese medicine samples. Photo Credit: Tidal Wellness.

To avoid being complicit in the commodification of TCM, ask questions. Ask questions about cultural and historical significance, about pronunciation, and about the health benefits. Make informed decisions about the practitioners that you visit and the treatments that you receive.

And if you hear someone talking about how TCM is the “latest fad”, feel free to remind them that as a “trend” that has over 2,000 years of history, you’re pretty sure this one will sticking around.

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