Corruption and uncaring physicians tend to occur mainly in hospitals focusing on Western biomedicine. Traditional Chinese doctors, who use various indigenous methods such as herbs, massages, cupping, acupuncture, and dietary modification, by the nature of their field have to look at the whole patient, including his social situation, lifestyle, and mental attitude. Despite serious Communist efforts to modernize and streamline these methods into a biomedically acceptable system with streamlined treatment protocols, formally known as TCM, doctors still see symptoms as indications of systemic imbalance and prescribe exercises and lifestyle changes as much as interventions by herbs or needles.
Daoists, never entirely taken in by TCM while always seeing patients within the larger framework of society and cosmos, follow a system called Classical Chinese Medicine that adheres strictly to the ancient teachings as codified in the Huangdi neijing 黄帝内经 (Inner Classic of the Yellow Emperor) and is entirely geared toward individual uniqueness and personal cultivation. Seeing the body as a major portal to spiritual cultivation, Daoists have long had an intimate connection to medicine. Many leading Daoists were also physicians, and vice versa—the most prominent being Sun Simiao 孙思邈 (581-682), Tang dynasty Daoist, alchemist, physician, pharmacologist, and more, now widely venerated as the King of Medicines (Yaowang 药王).
Today, many temples house clinics and monks often train in various medical techniques. Thus, for example, Huang Zongsheng 黄宗胜, abbot of the Changchun guan 长春观 (Temple of Eternal Spring) in Wuhan, early on specialized in herbal formulas, notably for swollen eyes and female troubles. He not only prices his medicines low, so people can afford them, but also offers them in free trials, not charging anything at all until patients experienced some relief. In addition, he and other Daoist doctors often hold free clinics for the poor, working the first half of the day for free, then seeing paying patients in the afternoon. Part of their service to society and world, this is possible because the temple takes care of their room and board, and they had few personal needs and no dependents to support.
Generally today, temple clinics use the full gamut of Chinese medical techniques to treat, and strive to create a something they call “Daoism in life” (shenghuo daojiao 生活道教). This vision encourages temple Daoists to offer social in addition to medical services, such as psychological counseling for people confused by the modern world, thereby raise the religion’s presence in society.
Another form Daoist health care takes is qi-healing, using vital energy to stimulate physical health, either activated by the patient through qigong exercises or infused by a practitioner via laying-on of hands. While qigong as an unsupervised, private community practice has been outlawed since the Falun gong protests in 1999, its medical use in properly accredited and government-supported clinics has been on the rise.
An example is the Eight Trigrams Red Cross Medical Exchange Center in the western outskirts of Beijing. Founded by Master Wan Sujian (b. 1953), originally trained as a Western-style physician and working for the People’s Liberation Army, it offers training in qigong exercises, vigorous (almost acrobatic) gongfu routines, external qi-healing, traditional music, tea ceremony, and Daoist ritual.
Qigong exercises in this context serve to tonify the three elixir fields, purify the meridians, strengthen the essence, and harmonize yin and yang energies. External qi-healing, here commonly undertaken by a group of six to eight practitioners, involves both hands-on massage techniques and external qi transmission without direct touch. These and other forms of energy-enhancing treatments closely engage the patient in the healing process, gradually shifting both diagnostic awareness and control over treatment protocols to the patient.
Read: Liu, Xun. 2008. “Profile of a Quanzhen Doctor: Abbot Huang Zongsheng at Wuhan’s Monastery of Eternal Spring.” Journal of Daoist Studies 1:145-60.
Rinaldini, Michael. 2008. “How I Became a Daoist Priest.” Journal of Daoist Studies 1:181-87.
Favraud, Georges. 2016. “Immortals’ Medicine: Daoist Healers and Social Change.” Journal of Daoist Studies 9:101-20.