Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Acupuncture’s dubious past

KSJ Tracker is a service for science journalists, created and funded by the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Last year they published this note reviewing an article in a German newspaper about the background of acupuncture. I was attracted to it by the amazing diagram, which tells you everything you need to know about this ancient Chinese art, if you are an ancient Chinese quack.

It was George Soulié de Morant, a Frenchman (1878-1955), who is considered to be the “father” of western style acupuncture. His descriptions in his books of how and where to put the needles into the skin of patients guided all his followers. Unfortunately he was a fabulist, according to an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. The author (Hanjo Lehmann) is a physician and head of the German Institute for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), whose aim it is to research the scientific basis of TCM. He seems to be the first ever who really looked into the roots of the western style acupuncture and the ridiculous theories of Soulié de Morant. The article explains his fraud in detail, starting with his name – he himself added the aristocratic “de Morant”. Although he writes that he spoke Chinese, when he arrived in China in 1901 (only 23 years old!) there is no hint, that he ever studied Chinese or lived with Chinese people. Also, his rank as vice-consul and judge seems implausible, because he never visited any university or diplomatic school.

Regarding acupuncture, Soulié de Morant describes how he first saw and practised the technique himself during a cholera outbreak in Bejing in 1901. Unfortunately, no records of such an outbreak at that time exist. These and dozens of more inconsistencies are interesting, but what consequences do they have for “modern” acupuncture therapies? Well, Soulié de Morant’s fiction and misconceptions not only found their way into but are the very basis of current acupuncture. The whole philosophy of western acupuncture, with energy streams and stuff like that, is based on sloppy translations, misconceptions or even blank fantasy. As an example, the “Qi” in Chinese acupuncture tradition meant a fine substance; Soulié translated it into the disembodied, current-like “energy”, a whole different concept. One might say,  “Who cares? In most cases, acupuncture doesn’t work, anyway.”

In Germany, to get official approval to offer acupuncture German physicians must pay for an expensive course, based on Soulié de Morant’s quackery. So patients are having needles stuck into them based on the fantasies of a fraud.

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