A Year of Teaching in China

Pages: 34-35
Year: 2003
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute – Summer / August 2003 – Vol 31 nº 03

Volume: 31


Fifteen years ago I spent a year teaching medical students at Hunan Medical College in Changsha, China. It was an opportunity to live in a culture with different traditions of healing, including acupuncture, herbal medicine and massage. I did not learn to do any of these procedures, but I became acquainted with them. I also spent some time with the Chinese scholar who had recently translated Ida Rolf’s book into Chinese.

I have taught physiology to medical students and other health professional students all my professional life. In 1986, while taking evening classes in science education at The University of Aklahoma, t got to know a student who was a teacher from Hunan Province in China. I discovered a medical school not far from him in the provincial capital of Changsha. I wrote to them and was invited to come to teach a one-semester course in physiology to their “English” medical students. This was a special class of 34 students that had a year of intensive English study taught by recent Yale graduates before beginning their medical courses. All their medical courses were in English, some by older Chinese faculty who had learned English in the 1940’s. Many young faculty were also fluent in English, which is the primary second language in China. For my medical physiology course I gave six lectures per week for 20 weeks, plus exams and a term paper. In the fall I also gave lectures to faculty from nearby colleges with translation into Chinese in Neurophysiology and in Continuing Medical Education.


The students that do the best on university entrance examinations usually choose to attend medical school. Students enter medical school directly from high school, as in the British system. They, take biology, organic chemistry and physics for one year and then have a curriculum similar to American medical schools. This involves two years of basic medical sciences and two years of clinical studies. At age 23 they are practicing medicine, although they continue to be mentored in hospitals. Many schools have now added an additional year for medical education.

China had about 125 Western medical schools, 60 traditional medical schools, and ten Tibetan medical schools when I was there. Hunan Medical University was founded by Yale physicians in 1908. It had classes of 450 students. Lecture rooms only held 150 students, so lectures were repeated three times. Students had animal laboratories, which are rare in most American medical schools. Peking Medical School was also founded in the early 1900’s with support of The Rockefeller Foundation. The provincial capitals and larger cities often have more than one Western medical school and a traditional Chinese medical school. Health care for most Chinese, particularly in rural areas, is provided by practitioners with just junior college-level training.


The traditional medical school for Hunan province was on the south side of town, about a 40-minute ride with a change of buses downtown. Soon after my arrival I contacted a professor of English at the traditional school, and I visited him a few times during the year. When Neil Powers and some other Rolfers had visited Beijing and Changsha a few years before, they had encouraged him to translate Ida Rolf’s book into Chinese; which he did. Now he needed $4,000 to have the book published. Publishers needed a subsidy in order to risk publishing a book with an uncertain market. Unfortunately, the Rolf Institute did not have money for the project at that time.

In my tours of the traditional medical school I witnessed treatments of acupuncture and moxibustion. Of course, acupuncture points are based on the pattern of meridians, energy channels through the body. The theory is that it balances the “ch’i” in the body. One possible explanation is that the needles and heat stimulate nerve endings or affect blood and lymph flow to achieve their effects. It is used particularly on patients with chronic lower back pain, arthritis, recovering from a stroke, digestive problems and other chronic ailments. The treatments are repeated every day for ten days, except Sundays, before they modify the treatment. The procedure is to insert many fine stainless steel needles and twirl or jiggle them until the patient reports feeling a dull ache. Then they apply heat by putting a wad of moxi root and herbs around the shaft and the needle and igniting it. It smolders and heats the needle without scorching the skin. The patients are clearly helped by such procedures. (Like Rolfing, it would be hard to do double-blind tests of effectiveness, to separate physiological effects from psychological expectations.)

The use of acupuncture for anesthesia only developed after liberation in 1949. It can use electrical stimulation via the needles rather than twirling them. Its use has declined from its heyday of the 1960’s, but it still has limited applications, particularly for head and neck surgery.

I received a traditional Chinese massage treatment when fully clothed. I experienced it as a combination of quick releases like chiropractic and slower moves like Swedish massage. It did not have the depth of Rolfing, but I felt both invigorated and relaxed. They offered to train me in Chinese massage, but their fee of $100 per hour seemed excessive (“Of course, all Americans are wealthy”). They had a group of eight Canadian physicians coming soon for a month of training after five months of home study of acupuncture. The physicians would be supervised for an additional three months after returning home.

The traditional college had a four-year curriculum, with basic sciences courses followed by clinical courses. In their final year each student specialized in acupuncture, massage or herbal medicine. I would want anyone doing acupuncture on me to have their thorough training, rather than having only a short course, like some practitioners in the US.

Major cities also have a particular location, perhaps a square, where people go to receive massages out-of-doors. The massage practitioners are all blind men. This is a wonderful profession for persons who are considered disabled in so many societies.


The students at my Western medical school also had some courses in traditional Chinese medicine, so they combined both methods of treatment. My daughter was tutored in Chinese by one of my teaching assistants. When my daughter was sick, the tutor gave her antibiotics but also did acupressure treatments. When my wife had abdominal cramping, the tutor gave her some Western as well as herbal medicines and also used some acupuncture (my wife was unwilling have her try moxibustion). They both recovered, but there was no way to determine which treatment was effective. At some level perhaps it does not matter what part of the treatment is most effective, because the culture has developed a total system that works.

Health care was very inexpensive for us. Faculty only paid 4% of the charges for procedures and medicines. The exchange rate of dollars to local currency also made everything cheap. The hospital charged $2 for an x-ray, so we paid only 8 cents! Medical care in China is much more expensive now; two thirds of it is private rather than by the government. Some physicians are becoming wealthy, which means buying cars, VCR’s, and home appliances.

Good health is more than just medical treatment. Groups of people do Tai Chi Chuan every morning at about 6 AM in city parks and open spaces throughout China. At Hunan Medical College they were mostly retired professors and other workers who used the croquet field for their meeting place. My wife and I learned a similar form using swords, which was a relaxing moving meditation we did in the late afternoon. China now has increasing rates of heart disease, due to more fat in the diet and high rates of smoking. They are aware of the development of nearsightedness in children. They recommend having students look up from their books every ten minutes to relax their eyes and slow the progress Professor Tanner Thies teaching physiology to Chinese teachers of nearsightedness.

China is crowded. It has a population of 1.1 billion. Changsha had a population of 4 million, and Hunan province had 56 million (similar to France or Great Britain). This leads to lots of noise, which I suspect produces loss of hearing to high frequencies. Accidents on the streets are common, because of the increasing number of cars that compete with pedestrians and bicycles.


My year in China was exciting and satisfying. As I traveled around the country, people would guess that I was a teacher, and thank me for coming to China. The routines of life took some effort, but life was simpler. The “re-entry” into Western culture upon my return home was much more difficult than adjusting to living in China. I feel some sadness that China has become more “Westernized” since I left 15 years ago. The government no longer provides inexpensive health care for everyone. People are scrambling to make money; there is more disparity between rich and poor. Work places in cities provide medical insurance, but rural and poor urban families can be devastated by health care costs. Fortunately, the health care system still maintains the traditional procedures along with Western practices.

China is ready for Rolfing. Chinese practitioners who witnessed Rolfing demonstrations in the mid 1980’s felt that it “filled a hole in their thinking.” But traditional therapists might be reluctant to move to another system. The early chiropractors and osteopaths who were taught by Ida Rolf did not become Rolfers; they simply had a wider range of techniques to use.

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