Ok I generally loathe all arbitrary social media #holidays, but “Trans Awareness Week” is a great time to have a discussion I rarely see in our profession: Chinese Medicine is explicitly anti-binary.
Now, if you were taught Yin & Yang theory as a binary–as most of us were–this will be hard to grasp, so let me clarify:
A binary breaks things down into two distinct and concrete endpoints, often placed in opposition to one another. Regardless of what you were taught, this is not ultimately how Chinese medical philosophy regards Yin and Yang.
Yin and Yang are innately dynamic, impermanent, only exist relative to one another, and are endlessly, cyclically transforming into each other, which means they are by definition a DICHOTOMY, not a binary.
This is a subtle but crucial distinction: a binary is a framework which, by eliminating grey area and liminality, operates as a shortcut to replace critical thinking and dialogue. Binaries use the myth of concrete “endpoints” and static completions to terminate depth or exploration.
Dichotomies–like Yin and Yang–are frameworks organized specifically to stimulate and provoke depth and exploration. Dichotomies contrast orientations around a topic and suggest that there is no finality in either orientation–there is no arriving at either end– but investigating the tension between parameters helps us to organize how we think, consider more possibility and intentional directionality in our lives, and see ourselves as an endless process of discovery, not a finite state of self-identification.
This is fundamentally how our medicine views Yin and Yang…and gender…and everything.
Dichotomy is the true architecture of Chinese medical philosophy because CM is fundamentally unconcerned with "arriving at a destination.” Its sole concern is the process of becoming; how you get there. In all its poetry and wisdom is an earnest fascination with impermanence, endlessness and the oscillation that accompanies and mirrors the rising and falling of the natural world. It is fundamentally anti-binary, and I would argue that this is the very thing that attracted you to its study.
My favorite thing about the Five Elements is they never complete: their central tenet is that there is NO END TO BECOMING, no concretized culmination. They don’t say “Autumn happened, and then it ended.” Quite the contrary, it turns to Winter, and all comes back. The 5 Elements are a celebration of radical elasticity and fluid subjectivity; a refusal to make the range of possible identities terminable or distinct; and a surrendering to the wonder and thrill of the turning, the in-between and the not-knowing.
What infuriates me most about the conservative movement in this country is that–buried in its derisive views on female autonomy, queer rights, and racial minorities–it seems to delight not only in flattening all self-identification to a couple of thorny binary options (man/woman; gay/straight; black/white) but–even more so–in conflating any depth, dialogue or transience of self-expression with personal weakness and frivolity.
The entire “snowflake” invective is predicated on the lie that any and all self-inquiry is an itch you need only scratch once and then never again; that maturity should naturally kill imagination; and any continued curiosity or self-discovery is a gratuitous luxury for fools–or flight of fancy for people with too much time on their hands.
But let’s be real honest: the only reason why stifling curiosity and entirely vilifying asking deeper questions is so important to conservatives is because the glut of their beliefs is tied to religious right pre-rational and magical thinking dogma (ie. “cus Bible says so”) that they know will disintegrate like a house of cards if probed even slightly. They can only hold it together by dispossessing people of their sovereignty, self-determination, and imagination for possibility: they need binaries, because they last thing they want is a grey area or ambiguity.
This should offend you as an acupuncturist for whom the foundation of our capacity to treat is asking questions: the “10 Asking Song” speaks to the idea that questions make better medicine than answers.
Profound curiosity for liminality, impermanence and dialogue is tucked into every corner of our medicine: the very idea of “checking a pulse” is to say that nothing is fixed: where are you today? right now, knowing it can and should change, even by the time you leave. ST-36, the most powerful acupuncture point in the body, is named “Last Third of the Mile“ because it describes the distance to the end, the struggle mid-race. That point is an inquiry into how you arrive–an offering of assistance for how you get from here to there–not a celebration of completion.
And let’s not forget that the first half of the Huang Di Nei Jing, our foundational text from 2000 years ago, is the Su Wen: “the Book of Questions” between the Yellow Emperor and his physician, Qi Bo. The earliest surviving work on Chinese medicine is an imagined chitchat between a king and his doctor, just asking endless questions and shooting the shit: there is nothing more queer than that!
Our medicine is not concerned with static states of completion; with imagined finish lines and endings. Our medicine is explicitly about transness: thresholds, continuums and cycles which are perpetually rising and falling away, generating deeper and more honest inquiry, beyond binaries. Our medicine says that holding multiple truths, and watching them change and grow, is superior to marrying one final answer.
Chinese Medicine is ultimately a celebration of transition as the foundation of health; that dialogue is more important than achievement; and that allowing for movement between identities, conditions and goalposts can serve as a wiser and gentler teacher than simply striving to arrive at arbitrary endpoints.
Everything repeats and nothing lasts; the whole world is delicate, impermanent and beyond our endless imagination: this is the queer medicine you and I practice.
Happy Trans Awareness Week.
Thank you so much for this piece. As a trans non binary acupuncturist this has been something I’ve really appreciated about EA medicine, and am continually frustrated by the way the western lense desperately tries to squeeze it all into binaries. I actually wrote my dissertation on this a couple of years ago if you’d be interested in reading it.