Commentary by Tyler Phan

Lisafer's picture

As a first step in understanding where Liberation Acupuncture stands, we must analyze the contexts and genealogy of Chinese medicine in the United States. The anthropologist and acupuncturist Volker Scheid defines Chinese medicine as:

"The medicine of the scholarly elite during the imperial era and also to the subsequent transformations in course of the Republican, Maoist, and post-Maoist periods" (2002, 3).

Scheid's definition relates to Chinese medicine in China but once it's globalized it transforms accordingly. The question then would be, "What would make Liberation Acupuncture NOT Chinese medicine?" or better yet "What would practicing Chinese medicine 'wrong' look like?" Critics come with the assumptions that Chinese medicine is historically static and that there is an almighty authority of what IS Chinese medicine. On the contrary, Chinese medicine in the United States is ever changing and it is defined by a multitude of practices or ‘schools of thought’ that continually shift. The basis of my research, which is entitled American Chinese Medicine, examines the Chinese medical traditions and how regulatory bodies shape them (and vice versa).

So what exactly are the ‘schools of thought’ of American Chinese Medicine? In addressing ‘schools of thought’, it is important to examine the historical elements of American Chinese Medicine. As such, we must deconstruct common misconceptions surrounding the legacy of Chinese medicine: Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is only 65+ years old (Scheid 2002, Taylor 2005, Andrews 2014), Five Elements is only 60 years old (maximum) and was influenced by Worsley's naturopathic and osteopathic education in the UK (Barnes 2013), and much of Giovanni Maciocia's teachings were based on his education with Worsely, Dr. John Shen (Barnes 2013), and his time at Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine, one of the oldest TCM institutions in China, which was established in 1954. If we come to terms with these notions, 'schools of thought' are created, augmented, refined, and appropriated. They are constantly in flux and are influenced internally and externally, which is what brings them alive.

For example, we can comfortably claim that Five Elements is a separate school of thought in Chinese medicine, which is distinct from TCM. As such, Worsley was quite explicit and at times dogmatic on not teaching or using herbs. Nevertheless, Academy for Five Element Acupuncture (AFEA) and Maryland University of Integrative Health (MUIH, formerly Tai Shopia/TAI) have adopted herbs to their curriculum. This may seem like dramatic departure for Five Elements, but it instead displays the fluidity of traditions. Does practicing herbs make them NOT Five Elements? No. This is how traditions evolve.

The best example I can give, which may resonate with all those martial arts folks, is Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee created his own school of thought, Jeet Kune Do. Prior to that, he perfected Wing Chun where has was taught by the renowned Yip Man. However, Bruce Lee thought Wing Chung punches weren't effective and adopted boxing punches. Additionally, he found that adopting fencing techniques would help with speed and was keen on reading the body cues of the opponent for a more pragmatic style of fighting. Oh, and he got rid of the hierarchical belt system.

Many Chinese martial artists at the time refuted that Jeet Kune Do was an actual style of Kung Fu or even a martial art. So he tested it at the Long Beach International Karate Championships and the rest is history. Liberation Acupuncture and POCATech seems to me like the Bruce Lee/Jeet Kune Do of Chinese medicine. It's pragmatic, effective, and rooted in the classics but hated on because it defies convention.

In other words, Liberation Acupuncture has what it takes to be a legitimate 'school of thought' just as any other. Schools of thoughts change and adapt to their surroundings, those that don't, become stagnant and fail. Bringing light social issues is unprecedented in our profession and is extremely helpful. Yes, there will be resistance but that's the nature of the beast.

Personally, I think Liberation Acupuncture is fresh and new. Things will be tweaked and added, but that's the beauty of it.

- Tyler Phan, 2015

PhD Candidate
Department of Anthropology
University College London


Andrews, B. (2014). The Making of Modern Chinese Medicine, 1850-1960. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Barnes, L. (2013). “A World of Chinese Medicine and Healing: Part One.” In TJ. Hinrichs and L. Barnes (Ed.),Chinese Medicine and Healing: An Illustrated History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Scheid, V. (2002). Chinese Medicine in Contemporary China: Plurality and Synthesis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Taylor, K. Chinese Medicine in Early Communist China, 1946-63: A Medicine of Revolution. London: Routledge.





Patient waiting to be needled
Photo courtesy of
Dave Hudson