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TCM for Modern Men

What does TCM have to say about modern men and masculinity?


In the West and increasingly in China, the biology of male and female is culturally and politically contentious. In her influential book, Evolution’s Rainbow, Stanford biologist and transgender woman, Joan Roughgarden reveals the diversity of sex among animals, and argues for the normalcy and desirability of such diversity in humans. This comes in contrast to the long held belief in the immutability of sex, derived from western philosophy and science, including Darwin’s theory of ‘sex selection’.

Ancient Chinese philosophy and medicine also have a lot to say about the typologies of male and female. ‘’Heaven has yin and yang; people have man and wife,’’ affirms the classic text of Chinese Medicine, Yellow Emperor’s Inner Cannon (Huang Di neijing), complied from around 475 to 221 BCE. In Chinese philosophy and medicine, Yin and Yang are the basic constituents or energies of male and female bodies. Men are said to have more yang qi, and women, more yin. These binaries, however, are not as fixed as their western counterparts. In fact, they aren’t binaries at all, but fluctuating balances. Hence two other early texts, “Harmonizing Yin and Yang” (he yin yang) and “Discussion of the Realized Way of All Under Heaven” say that: “What assists life is eating; what injures life is lust. Therefore the sage when conjoining male and female invariably possesses a model.” Such philosophies arguably leave ample room for modern reinterpretations of sex and gender binaries. With this in mind, and having last week mainly looked at women’s health and TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), it now seems only fair to ask what TCM has to offer modern ‘men,’ and ‘masculinity’?



Chinese medical and Taoist theories discourage rigorous exercise, preferring gentler movements and stretches—tai chi and its antecedents. Working muscles to exhaustion, a common part of ‘bulking up’ in western gyms, would certainly be frowned upon. Speaking in an interview with Men’s Health China, the more aptly titled ‘Trend Health’ (shishang jiankang) in Chinese, well-known TCM practitioner Xu Wenming (whose name, interestingly for us, translates as gentle, literary solider) said that “‘man’s’ life comes in 8-year cycles, reaching its peak when he is 32.Though at this point intensive exercise and staying up all night may not harm the body, afterwards moderation should be accorded most importance’’

Yet, with the influx of western ideals, and particularly the modern gym, needs increasingly must. On my way to a yoga class at a Kunming gym, in the south of China, one Chinese man in his late forties told me that he’d given up tai chi because it wasn’t ‘rigorous’ enough. His arms were at least three times the size of mine (which couldn’t generally be said of the older men practicing qigong in the park outside). Perhaps he had followed the advice dispensed in Men’s Health Singapore: eat crocodile meat. Highly prized in TCM, it is also packed with protein, so is perfect as a ‘muscle-builder’. Few meals are manlier than crocodile, especially if you’ve killed the beast yourself.  



Western media have devoted much attention, perhaps deservedly, to TCM and male fertility. The traditional cures for problems in this area range from Ginseng to rhino penis, and were at one time widely popular. British writer, James Palmer reports travelling to Mongolia with a group Chinese Buddhists (you know, the one’s inclined to take a vow of life-long chastity) who ask: “Where can we go buy animal parts? Tiger, eagle, snake. For medicine! For men’s health!” In recent years, however, Viagra, imported from the west, has largely supplanted its TCM equivalents in China.

In Taoist practice, closely tied to TCM, much emphasis is placed on controlling ejaculation, following the belief that sperm contains male essence (jing), which should at all costs be preserved. Most medical and Taoist texts focus mainly on male practices and pleasure, though women are not completely overlooked, as they must enjoy themselves (at least a little) if the man is to extract maximum benefit from sex. Also, as Daniel Reed, modern western author of the book, The Tao of Health Sex and Longevity points out: ‘masturbation and homosexual relations are regarded as being especially harmful to the Yang-essence and energy.’ It’s about health he claims, not ethics.

But sex isn’t everything. What about the emotional and spiritual health of a relationship? In another Men’s Health/Trend Health article, TCM practitioner, Xu Wenbing gives female readers useful tips for becoming a ‘’wise and clever wife’’: “Don’t put too much pressure on your husband, or compare him unfavorably to others. Doing that will make him unhappy and unhealthy…let him live a natural life, sleeping well and eating wholesome things.” Make what you will of the advice from Daniel Reid and Xu Wenbing. Sufficed to say, those ‘modern reinterpretations’ may not yet have been adequately tapped. There’s still time.


Want more on Traditional Chinese Medicine? Check out: From Appalachia to China

Cover image from clinic.acumedic.com


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