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This edited transcript is less than 25% of the interview. You can listen to the full interview, above
Adrian Bye: Today I’m here with Philip Nino Tan-Gatue. Philip is in the Philippines and is an expert in acupuncture. Philip, thanks for joining us.
Philip Tan-Gatue: Thank you very much.
Adrian Bye: Philip is a leading representative in Chinese Medicine and acupuncture in the Philippines. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background? You are part Chinese and part Filipino. Did you grow up in China, or have you always lived in the Philippines?
Philip Tan-Gatue: I grew up in the Philippines. I’m actually fourth generation Filipino Chinese. My great-grandfather was the one who emigrated from China at the turn of the last century. So we are talking the 1800s.
Adrian Bye: Why do you even consider yourself Chinese at all?
Philip Tan-Gatue: I’m a Philippine citizen, culturally I consider myself Chinese. I love the language, I drink the tea, my wife is Mainland Chinese. The thing about being Chinese in the Philippines is that we have our own little communities here. So we have Chinese language schools, I went to one. We have our own Chinese family communities; we even have our own Chinatown.
Adrian Bye: So you are married, you live in Manila, you are on TV a lot about acupuncture, you actually studied Chinese medicine for a couple of years.
Philip Tan-Gatue: To be precise, I took some relatively short courses as prescribed by the world health organisation, available for acupuncture training centre in Nanjing and Beijing, with the specific purpose of training western medical practitioners. Not necessarily just MDs, but nurses, physical therapists, and so on.
Adrian Bye: You are both, Chinese medicine and MD, right?
Philip Tan-Gatue: Yes, I am a medical doctor. I graduated from the University of the Philippines in 2002. I never thought I would become a full-time acupuncturist. I liked it; I thought I could incorporate it into my practice.
Adrian Bye: So let’s talk about that. What got you going in acupuncture? How did you make the jump from being an MD to coming out and doing some classes in China?
Philip Tan-Gatue: Well, I’ve always heard about it, I actually have a colleague who preceded me. He graduated from medical school four years ahead of me. He took some classes. I got exposed to the practice from him. I saw he had some books with him by an Englishman from Italian descent, Giovanni Maciocia. I’m sure that all Chinese medicine practitioners all over the world know of him. And I noticed that he took the same courses that I eventually later took in Nanjing. These were the basic and advanced acupuncture courses offered in the Nanjing University of Traditional Medicine, International Acupuncture Training Centre. These lasted for about three months each. I took some extra internship times, so I was there for about eight months. And the fun stuff is everything I do now, everything I do from a philosophical point of view, I didn’t learn there. This was just a stepping stone, the start. What was missing in the study of Chinese medicine is what you like to talk about, the philosophy behind it.
Adrian Bye: Go on; that is very interesting.
Philip Tan-Gatue: For example, there were many lingering questions in my mind: how this applies in everything. There is a tendency in Mainland China, and even in the west, to try to reduce everything to bare bones. They try to eliminate what they feel is not essential now. Of course, what is essential to one person may not be essential to the others. So, when your goal is to try to make something accessible to as many people as possible, obviously you want to trim things down. One very particular application of this is the Chinese simplification of characters in Mainland China. You take some strokes away. Unfortunately, by doing that sometimes you take away some of the mystique, some of the hidden meaning behind the more complicated characters.
We were taught Yin and Yang represent this and everything, but we were not taught anything about the Bagua, about the heavenly stems and earthly branches, which is unfortunate. When we studied in China a lot of the difficult things were simplified. In the Yellow Emperor’s medical classic, the Huangdi Neijing, the earlier texts would say that the heart and the pericardium meridians were actually seen as one. That would leave us with only five channels, or a total of ten, if you count them bilaterally; ten in the arms and twelve in the legs, whereas modern acupuncture would say twelve/twelve. They would separate the pericardium and the heart. That always bugged me. Why would they need to join that together? And then I realized by reading other books, ironically not written by Chinese but written by westerners, that the arms are higher, so they are heaven, the feet are planted on the ground, so they are earth. So they have the ten heavenly stems and the twelve earthly branches. Wow, mind blowing. Also, the Bagua numerology explains a lot of why even though the liver is located in the centre of the abdomen, it is said to be of the same material as the kidney. I can’t elaborate on that right now, but the explanation there has to do with the eight trigrams, the Bagua.
Adrian Bye: When you took classes over there and then here in China were you not taught that kind of stuff?
Philip Tan-Gatue: Unfortunately, no, because most of the people who teach acupuncture here now come from the same courses from China. Allow me to describe the different levels of acupuncturists or Chinese medicine practitioners. Number one, you have people like me, who are trying to balance both the scientific aspect and the ancient traditional aspect. There are some that are totally offended by any idea trying to legitimize Chinese medicine by western science. These are the people who think western science is evil. And then there are those on the other end of the spectrum who try to totally eliminate everything quasi mystical from the practice of Chinese medicine.
Adrian Bye: One of the foundational principles of western science is the scientific method. You’ve been trained in western medicine; you’ve got your doctor, so now you’re doing Chinese medicine. Chinese medicine doesn’t care about the scientific method at all.
Philip Tan-Gatue: Or so people like to think. Let’s look at what the scientific method is. The scientific method is all about reproducing results while trying to leave out other variables that may affect the result. You’re trying to simplify everything. The important thing is reproducible results. Now I look at these magnificent Chinese medicine books from antiquity, we are talking about the Pi Wei Lun, Shang Han Lun. Who is to say that the people who wrote these things down did not come up with these recipes for herbs through trial and error and observation? I think before they wrote it down sure they must have tested it on hundreds and hundreds of patients before they came up with the proportion of this herb to that herb that works best. So while it’s not exactly the scientific method, the principles are there.
For example, I mentioned the Pi Wei Lun, or in English, The Treatise on the Spleen and Stomach, by Li Dong-yuan. One of his characteristic formulas is Dang Gui Bu Xue Tang, which is Dang Gui, that’s the herb; Bu Xue to strengthen the blood. The formula only has two herbs, Huang Qi and Dang Gui. The proportion of Huang Qi to Dang Gui must always be five to one. So the traditional formula is thirty grams of Huang Qi and six grams of Dang Gui. A study published in 2006 in Hong Kong tried to study why would Li Dong insist on a proportion of five to one. Without going into meticulous detail, they found the active ingredient of the formula. This active ingredient was verified to be of highest proportion when the two ingredients were concocted together at a ratio of five to one. So, what we have here is the scientific method confirming what people could only do with empirical observation.
Adrian Bye: To me it would seem that Chinese medicine should just become merged with western medicine.
Philip Tan-Gatue: They can work side by side, but you can’t just mix all the principles together because they are founded on totally separate principles. Also the philosophical aspect behind each one is different. You might have western medicine, which is in itself a closed system. Everything is internally consistent. You have Chinese medicine where everything is internally consistent. But when you try to mix them together, without knowing how to do so, you might just end up with problems.
Adrian Bye: I don’t see the overall lines of thought from Chinese medicine and western medicine so different. Western medicine I believe needs to learn more quality and the concept of chi from Chinese medicine. And Chinese medicine needs to incorporate the scientific method to be able to do repeatable, provable, verifiable work with the patients. I see the two can be merged together. Would you agree with that?
Philip Tan-Gatue: I wouldn’t say you can merge them, what I can say is they definitely can work together. I often say where western medicine sucks, Chinese medicine is great, and vice versa. Let’s look at cancer. I truly believe you can treat cancer and cure cancer through natural methods only if we have the time. The problem with cancer is precisely that, we have rapidly dividing cells, and we may not have the time to wait. That’s why you need to blitz the bad guys. The problem is, blitzing the bad guys gives us a lot of collateral damage. So one of the nice things you can do is use the chemotherapy to blitz the bad guys, get rid of the cancer cells as much as you can, use acupuncture and herbs to minimize the side effects and strengthen what we would call the righteous chi of the patient. So you are attacking the enemy from different fronts now.
Adrian Bye: The problem we have in western medicine is we don’t accept the concept of chi as being valid. We might say someone has a good health, or has a good constitution; we don’t really include that in our thinking just yet.
Philip Tan-Gatue: How would you define what chi is? Because I find that to be a source of a myriad of misunderstandings when it comes to understanding what Chinese medicine truly is. How would you define what chi is?
Adrian Bye: Overall health, overall vitality. Life force, these are the sorts of words I would use. Strength.
Philip Tan-Gatue: If I may quote from a dictionary of Chinese medicine. It defines chi as: the invisible, basic substance that forms the universe and produces everything in the world through its movement and changes. So chi is a philosophical concept. When it comes to medicine, this is how he defines it further: chi, in its physiological sense, is referred to as the basic element or energy, which makes up the human body; so you have the material aspect. And supports its vital activities; and you have an energetic aspect. Immediately the misconception that it is pure energy is dispelled. In Chinese psyche, chi is both physical and energetic. It’s not just some purely mystical energy thing. It is both, matter and energy.
Adrian Bye: I think you are at a very interesting spot as you are sitting across both cultures. How does the concept of yin/yang apply in acupuncture?
Philip Tan-Gatue: Well, yin and yang, and I’m saying this for the benefit of the audience, is a philosophical construct representing opposites. From a structural point of view, yin and yang can represent the flow of channels in the body. The yin aspects would be more internal, the inside of the arm, inside of the leg, as opposed to the yang outside of the arm. The front would be more yin, the back would be more yang. That’s one way to go about it. The other way is how we classify disease. In Chinese medicine it is said that ultimately all diseases are due to an imbalance of yin and yang. For example, pneumonia would be a pulmonary disease where there is too much physiology, the immune systems is going bananas trying to fight an infection. This is a hyperactivity of yang. In a seemingly similar disease, tuberculosis, where the damage is caused by actual destruction of the lung parenchyma, you see a deficiency of yin. It also refers to certain characteristics of certain herbs and certain points; some have a more yang effect and some points have a more yin effect. That’s basically how to go about it. So it’s a philosophical construct that you can apply even to western culture. For example antibiotics are considered very yin, or should I say cold, which is a yin aspect, because they put out fire. Antibiotics can be classified in Chinese herbology as cold. Therefore, you supplement them with warm additionals in order to preserve digestion; which is what you were talking about, quality of life.
Adrian Bye: When we classify everything as yin and yang, how do we know that something is truly yin and something is truly yang?
Philip Tan-Gatue: There is no such thing as being truly yin and truly yang. Everything is a mix of yin and yang. It’s just a matter of to what degree. For example, the chest is considered yang in general, because it lies above the belly button. But relative to the head it’s yin, because it lies below the head. This is one thing that is a conundrum for people who follow an absolutist philosophy like that by Rene Descartes. Something is either hot or cold. It can’t be both. But to the oriental psyche, it’s not that something is hot or cold, something may be more hot than cold at a given point in time. Then later it cools off, now it’s more cold than hot. So to say that something is just yin, or just yang, is erroneous.
Adrian Bye: I want to say two things. The first is I don’t like your answer, and the second is it’s probably absolutely correct. And it makes me uncomfortable because it puts us in the position where it becomes hard to really define things well.
Philip Tan-Gatue: Which we are not used to. In the western mind we are not used to not define things well. I understand where you are coming from, the cognitive dissonance you’re going through right now. It takes getting used to.
Adrian Bye: Is there any other thing that you would like to mention before we wrap up?
Philip Tan-Gatue: I grew up with a western medicine tradition but the seeds of Chinese culture were already planted since my youth. I eventually learned how to look at Chinese medicine in a different light. I grew to love it. I just want to encourage everyone don’t think that your own culture has the absolute truth. It’s nice to see how people came up with their beliefs, it’s nice to see how certain beliefs developed, even if you don’t agree with those beliefs. At least we can see why people came up with this. By being open-minded, but not too open that we accept any kind of garbage from outside. We must be open and critical enough so that even if we don’t agree we can at least respect each other because we can see why you believe certain things. And because of that we can get along pretty well. That’s at least how it should be.
Adrian Bye: Philip, it’s been a privilege to talk with you. You made some great points today.