How Chinese Medicine Changed My Life

Extracts from the book "How Chinese Medicine Changed My Life" written by John Dolic 

The Adventure into the Unknown

I studied Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), in China, more as an adventure into the unknown, rather than from any conviction that it would become my profession. Its unusual concepts intrigued and challenged me intellectually. But along the way I became increasingly impressed by the logical thinking and the principles that lie behind the medicine; the safeness, non-invasiveness and the varied repertoire of its therapies. Finally I was totally won by its wholistic approach and preventative aspects.

At the bare minimum, it is 3000 years since TCM began to develop. Its classical medical text, still valid today and required reading by medical students, goes back some 2000 years and was formulated over many generations.

In the 20th century, traditional TCM is a highly developed medical system whose principles of practice are based on the theory that life energy (Qi or Chi) is the sustaining and transformative force within the human body. Symptoms, according to TCM theory, indicate imbalances within this energy network. Therefore the aim of TCM is always to restore, support or correct the balance, and flow, of energy throughout the body. When imbalances are corrected, symptoms disappear.

Having determined the existence of energy the Chinese went on to determine what influences favoured the energy - or harmed it. These were found to involve every aspect of being: food, the environment, the seasons and changeable weather, social relationships, how a person relates to another, how they deal with their emotions and manage their sexuality. Whether their life style is harmonious or erratic. They observed what effect accidents, minor or major, had on energy as well as pregnancies, miscarriages or abortion. Most importantly, they learned how to redress the effects of trauma on this vital energy.

Although China today is increasingly influenced by western materialism, TCM is still favoured there rather than foreign medicine. Its ancient philosophies are deeply spiritual and support the natural laws that govern life. TCM does not seek to manipulate nature but flows with nature's rhythms and obeys its laws. This philosophy, which recognised the life force and the interconnectedness of humans and their environment, has never been minimised or discarded.

This study changed my life and gave it new meaning. The philosophies and principles of TCM awakened a sense of spiritual values which had previously escaped me.  

It was not until I was in my fourth or fifth year, at medical school, that I started to grasp the concepts behind yin and yang and the five element theory, which provide the key to diagnosis and treatment. All these factors were to have a deep, transformative effect on me and my life. I began to question conventional western concepts and attitudes; certainly medical ones, and started to view life from a different perspective.

The main therapies of Chinese medicine are herbs, acupuncture, massage and Qi Gong. But no one could possibly learn, in one life time, all the available knowledge about even one of these therapies, let alone learn all there is about relevant subjects such as Chinese orthopedics, pediatrics or food to mention only three. The six years of solid study I did, at the Beijing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, only opened the door to that wealth of knowledge. To say the least, the knowledge contained in Chinese medicine is formidable.

The system also includes many self-help therapies; notably acupressure and Qigong. There are many and varied forms of Qigong which are highly efficient remedial exercises, suitable for any one of any age or disability and most forms can be taught in only a few lessons. These self-help therapies when taught correctly, practiced properly and regularly, have good results generally. What's important too, in the doing, students often discover their own healing power and begin to develop a sense of self responsibility. Something I think is largely missing in our 'fix-it-for-me-doctor' culture.

Today, when I see people who are not sick, but just can't bend, lift, or walk far, I think of the many remedial exercises that could have prevented some of these conditions from developing. All that heroic surgery, hip replacements for instance, could, in many cases, be avoided with the regular practice of just one of these exercises. Surgery is not used in Chinese medicine. It never developed within the system. Conditions, managed by surgery in the West, can be treated in China by non-surgical means.

My involvement with Chinese medicine came slowly. I was quite sceptical about unusual or unorthodox practices. But, on the other hand, I wasn't adverse to putting them to the test either. When I did I repeatedly got positive results and my scepticism retreated.

Nowadays when I introduce western clients to these therapies, and they apply them on a regular basis, they come back to me full of enthusiasm and wonderment. I hear repeatedly "I feel so much better, this really does work," and "I didn't believe Qigong could do this".

The aim of this book is primarily to introduce Chinese medicine, simply and basically, through the role it played in my life and that of my family and friends. How its philosophies, in theory and practice, changed me from a withdrawn person into a more balanced human-being and why I love and respect this dynamic medicine.


Never, in my wildest dreams, did I ever imagine I would fall in love with Chinese medicine and become one of its practitioners. As a teenager I had no scholastic ambitions; I hadn't a clue as to what career I should follow. I wasn't even competitive at school and no one could have called me a swot. Batman comics and Kung Fu movies were more my speed. But I did have one ambition though: finish school, get out of Bosnia, and travel.

The Orient had always fired my imagination; China in particular. Their martial and fine arts, philosophy, history and language all interested me. I had seen many Kung Fu movies and was full of youthful fantasies about a land that was, to me, strange and mystical. The philosophies hinted at, in these movies, the music, architecture and the behaviour of the characters excited my youthful curiosity and I was full of admiration for the skill and adroitness of the Kung Fu stars. Admittedly most of these films were rubbish, especially the ones from Hong Kong, but nevertheless they introduced a culture which has never ceased to fascinate me.

I was born in 1959 in Bosnia, Yugoslavia, as it was known then. I had a good relationship with my parents and three sisters. Today I joke that I was born Taoist because, as a child, I avoided the limelight and preferred the lesser roles.

Truth was I had little self-confidence and felt uncomfortable socially. I was hyper-sensitive, cried a lot as a small child, was easily agitated and given, at times, to hysterical laughter. Once I started laughing I would go on and on. My emotions, to say the least, were all over the place.

On social occasions I preferred to keep a low profile and managed this by hanging-out with friends similar in nature to mine. I wasn't at all gregarious and this characteristic has not changed; though today I have better control over my emotions and plenty of self-confidence.

My sisters were out-going, popular, social beings. I was so successful at staying in the background many of the students didn't even realise I was brother to these lively girls. On one occasion, when they visited my sisters at home, they were puzzled to find me there also. But in contrast, at home alone with my family, I was a noisy, mischievous boy who loved to tease his sisters.

I wasn't altogether a saint at school either but, never at any time, did I deliberately draw attention to myself. When I made the headlines, years later, many of my school peers had trouble placing me but one or two teachers, whose classes I had never attended, claimed they remembered me. Such is fame.

As a child I had a lot of nose bleeds, chronic sinusitis and suffered from car sickness. This was severe. I dreaded car trips and, I imagine, this was a trial too for my parents. No matter what my mother did, fed me early, or starved me, as soon as the trip was underway I would become cold, sweaty and sick to the stomach.

This travel sickness plagued me for 20 years. Any sort of motor travel, especially buses, were difficult for me. The problem lessened as I grew older but it wasn't until I began my Chinese practices did these childhood weaknesses clear for good. In retrospect, I think I was born with constitutional imbalances which, in China, probably would have been recognised, and addressed, medically from the start.

When I was 17 my first serious health problem showed up. I had high blood pressure. This was disturbing because I had a secret, deep-seated fear of doctors and their procedures. I had heard descriptive accounts from various people of what happened to them when they landed in hospitals. All the graphic, diagnostic details frightened me and I had vowed to stay clear of doctors and hospitals. I absolutely loathed needles and injections and lived in fear of visits to the dentist as well. But I never voiced these secret fears to anyone.

It was in my early teens that I began, occasionally, to have an aversion to strong light and one or two headaches. But I was fit and lean, active in sports, and didn't think too much about these symptoms, or even mentioned them. We weren't a family that ran to doctors with every little thing.

But a doctor friend of my mother's, who happened to be visiting when I complained about a headache, almost jokingly took my blood pressure. It was 190/110. The doctor couldn't believe it and took it again. This was the beginning of a long series of visiting the local hospital for various tests, diet adjustment and tablets. My mother had to hound me to attend these appointments.

I hated sitting around in out-patients waiting to be seen. So boring and time consuming. I felt deeply resentful about my situation. Here was I barely an adult and stuck on pills, presumably for the rest of my life, because my blood pressure wouldn't stay down without medication. I had heard, and read, that many medications, especially hypertensive drugs, often had nasty side-effects and that worried me. Deliberately I would 'forget' to take my medication despite my mother's pleas. During this time I developed a phobia about wide open spaces. I don't know whether this had anything to do with my blood pressure or medication but, one thing I know for sure, the phobia left me when I started to do Qigong.

Later on, in China, I was to unknowingly start practicing one of the martial arts that would address the cause of my hypertension and release me permanently from the problem.

But had I had been told, at this stage, a Chinese martial art could treat high blood pressure I would have been skeptical. As much as I disliked the procedures of western medicine, I doubted there was anything better.

During this time, in late 70s, a television program about Chinese medicine went to air in Bosnia. Various diseases, blood pressure in particular, and the approach taken by Chinese medicine, came under discussion. It was the first time I had heard of blood pressure being described as a symptom of energy imbalance and not as a disease condition. This concept meant nothing to me but I privately made up my mind, nevertheless, that if I ever got to China I would check out Chinese medicine.

My family weren't wealthy and if I was to fulfill my desire to travel, before settling into a career, I'd have to get some sort of scholarship. In the holidays, after graduating from secondary school, I began to search for an institution that would grant me one. I was told about a selection committee, in Sarajevo, which dealt with exchange students, for China, in the fields of science, technology, culture and education.

The application, I was told, would take at least a year to process. I wasn't optimistic as my secondary school grades weren't what you'd call impressive. Still, I hoped. But, in case this attempt failed, I entered the University of Belgrade to read languages; majoring in Spanish and, covering my tracks for China, took Mandarin as a second language. I had heard that a year's study of Mandarin was a compulsory requirement for entry to any Chinese university.

As luck would have it, after I completed one year at Belgrade University, the machinery of bureaucracy finally came up with my acceptance as an exchange student. I was delighted. But the authorities, who organised and managed this scheme, appeared more interested in the politics of exchange rather than what a student might do in the future. Though I lacked any career ambitions I was conscious of being privileged as a student. I was ready to pledge myself to work, on my return, in some organisation for the exchange. But nothing was said or demanded. As far as they were concerned, it seemed, I could study anything in China, from language, philosophy, history, martial or fine arts and go where I chose.

I was bemused by the options open to me. Here was my dream, handed to me on a plate, with no strings attached. No edicts concerning study, not even a destination. The situation was that loose. For want of any factual information I decided upon Beijing, the one place in China whose name was familiar to me.

There was one problem left; as an exchange student, I had to pass a medical test and hypertension might go against me. I put aside my apathy about medication and took them as prescribed. The result was my blood pressure normalised and I passed the required medical tests.

Nevertheless despite the warnings I had received from doctors about the importance of taking my tablets I stopped the medication the moment I arrived in China. My blood pressure did go up again, of course. All exchange students had to attend a clinic, in Beijing, for routine checks, not so much for their health, but to guard against the spread of any social disease. It was during such a check I noticed my B/P was still above normal but no one made an issue of it. That suited me fine.

In China at Last

I was 20 years old when I arrived in the great city of Beijing. It was 1979 and China was in the process of opening up to foreigners after the so called Cultural Revolution. My first impressions were a mixture of fascination and disappointment. There was no immediate sign of the mystical China of my fantasies.

The city, at first glance, was not inspiring. Much of the visible architecture seemed quite ordinary, nothing that really bore the stamp of the Orient. But the air was fresh and well established trees lined many of the footpaths. There was no roar of traffic, only the squeaking of passing bikes.

What amazed me were the crowds; I had never seen so many people in a single city. And the roads were so broad with clearly marked lanes which definitely favoured cyclists; so different from the noisy, car-infested western cities where cyclists are not so welcome.

Everyone, it seemed, was wearing blue Mao pyjamas. These I liked and promptly equipped myself with a similar suit and the slip on cloth footwear the Chinese call 'lazy-bone' shoes. I found the clothing and shoes much more comfortable to wear than western gear. My feet, callosed from 'breaking in' new leather shoes, relished the change.

Chinese clothing, then, was practical and designed more for protection against the elements than for fashion. The Chinese seemed surprised how poorly equipped we foreign students were for the winter. Our version of warm clothing could not compete with their padded jackets, thick boots and fur hats with ear flaps. No doubt about it, winter in Beijing is severe.

I began to dress according to the temperature and wasn't too bothered by the absence of air conditioning or central heating. There was some central heating but not on a large scale. I believe I stayed healthier anyway without the man-made climates. When it is hot inside it is much easier to catch cold outside in the winter months.

The Chinese, though definitely friendly and free with their smiles, would also stare at us in a quite unnerving fashion. We foreigners weren't used to that.

In retaliation we would stare back but that didn't phase them in the slightest. Staring at foreigners, in 1979, seemed to be the national game. Crowds would gather round us, just to look, and no matter how much we glared or shouted they just stood and stared until they had their fill. One student was very put out when he visited the zoo and found himself more fascinating to the Chinese than the animals.

To be fair, many of those Chinese probably had never set eyes on a foreigner in their lives. We must have so looked strange to them in our colourful clothing, with round light-coloured eyes and fairer hair. Besides, it isn't rude to stare in China. The traditional Chinese aren't at all self conscious about staring or being stared at. It's just something they do when interested.

I had made up my mind not to rush around, like a tourist, but to view the famous places, one at a time, over an extended period. Beijing is such a vast, sprawling city with much of its exquisite, unique architecture hidden among ugly, drab utility buildings or outside of the city. Over eight years, I was to discover and explore many of these ancient sites.

In many ways, to we foreign students, everything in China was back to front or opposite. The money was counted differently; we count money from small amounts to larger, the Chinese count from big to small; the traffic lights were horizontal, not vertical; and cyclists had priority over cars.

From what I observed too, the majority of Chinese shoppers seemed to have infinitely more patience than many of their western counterparts. No one seemed to mind when a customer took time over a purchase, and this frequently happened. Everyone would just stand and wait, without complaint. I rather liked that quality of patience. Time, it seemed, didn't exist for the Chinese.

Another strange thing was the Chinese point to mid-face when indicating themselves. Generally in the west we point to our chests when emphasising the personal. The Chinese even play ping pong differently; they only use forehand but, despite the lack of different strokes, continually win international championships. It was all quite mystifying. One student remarked 'why do they do everything the wrong way?' Why should we presume our way is right, I wondered.

There were very few cars in Beijing in those days, and only a small number of ambulances. If a person had a minor accident the Chinese would put them into anything at hand, a barrow, or rig up a stretcher out of a blanket or something and take them to a hospital. That impressed me about the Chinese; they were quick to act and never seemed frustrated by the scarcity of equipment or services. The Chinese certainly were different and I felt that I was going to enjoy the change.

Soon after arrival in Beijing we were all tested for fluency in Mandarin which was a basic for entry to any Chinese university. I had some Mandarin but not enough to undertake a university course. Though I had studied it for a year, at Belgrade University, I was happy to start from scratch and learn the language slowly and thoroughly and was duly enrolled at the Beijing Institute of Languages.

Learning Mandarin in China was a huge advantage. Every day I was able to practice the language as I went about my daily life. Within two months I progressed beyond what had taken me a year to learn at Belgrade. After four months I was able to order a meal in Mandarin and, by the end of the year, could converse quite adequately with the Chinese.

Mandarin is a fascinating language; it is so precise, orderly and logical. Rather like computer language. Western languages, in comparison, are exceedingly verbose. In Mandarin one or two syllables can express a whole scenario.

I would note how quickly messages would be exchanged between the Chinese. So much would be conveyed in one short burst. There's a statistic that claims the Chinese talk four times faster than any westerner. I find that quite credible. But, while I was still very much a novice, they were kind enough to moderate their fast speech when conversing with me.

Writing in Mandarin is equally as economical. Each character is 90 percent descriptive. What takes up a page, in English, wouldn't fill quarter of a page in Mandarin. At the language school I had access to a lot of literature that provided really pithy and amusing philosophical tales which added spice to my study. Many of them shed light on the sayings of the Chinese. For instance 'adding legs to the snake' means if something is complete, adding to it will only spoil it. I liked the study and, for the first time in my life, became a real swot.

Right from the beginning, of my stay in China, a more orderly existence of my own choosing entered my life. Not only did I study harder but I started learning a martial art from day one of my Mandarin course. On the first morning I woke early and noticed, through my dormitory window, at the Language Institute, a group of Chinese doing unfamiliar exercises in the near-by park.

I had read an American book about 'Chinese gymnastics' and thought this is what they are doing. The 'gymnastics', it turned out, was a beginner's form of Tai Chi Chuan, one of the martial arts (Kung Fu or Wu Shu). I decided to join this group and began, that morning, what turned out to be eight solid years of learning and practicing different forms of martial arts and Qigong.

In Europe I had done a bit of Aikido, Karate and Yoga but none of them really appealed to me. However Tai Chi Chuan I liked from the start. It rang bells for me. It demanded concentration and dexterity, and can develop a mental strength and physical agility that leaves for dead the brutality of contact sports such as boxing or football. Over the years, this feeling for 'Chinese gymnastics' hasn't changed.

The Tai Chi Chuan classes weren't easy at first. Not only did I feel awkward, my self-consciousness and lack of confidence was heightened by the relentless stares of the ever curious Chinese. But gradually the courtesy and kindliness of the teacher won my confidence. He was endlessly patient and would go over movements until I could do them with ease. He was, I noticed, the same with everyone. Always there was the softly-spoken instruction to "relax, shoulders down, watch your breathing," until it became second nature for me to move with the breath and become totally concentrated.

After a few weeks I began to feel less inhibited and less worried by the stares. I even began to think 'who cares'. The calming, balancing influence of Tai Chi Chuan had begun. For two years I didn't miss a single Tai Chi Chuan class. This dedication was to have a surprising side effect. My blood pressure, over six months, after being a problem for three years, gradually started coming down and was to stay normal despite the lack of medication. The aversion to light disappeared completely, though I did still get a few headaches. Later on I was to learn that it is common knowledge in China that the regular practice of Tai Chi Chuan, over a time, will normalise blood pressure and body weight, as well as correct other chronic problems.

In my second year, at the Language Institute, I added the remedial exercise, Qigong, to my fitness program and was to continue learning different forms of that also for the next few years.  The following chapter will discuss this powerful, once secret therapy.

Bookmark and Share

Bookmark and Share

John among his new friends