A Cultural Exploration of ‘Mo’ and Social Order in Traditional Chinese Medicine

04.03.2016

Written By: Jim Mott

The great joy of cultural exploration is how even the tiniest things can become a lens through which much broader and more fundamental ideas can be revealed. Often we find that big ideas are reproduced on much more everyday and mundane scales, microcosms replicating like Mandelbrot sets that are perfect copies of themselves no matter what level of magnification you set your lens to.

Take the pulse for example.

It starts with the memory (my own, potentially false) of a text on early renaissance musical notation and it’s use in medical diagnosis. A set of scales that measure out the beating of a hypothetical heart arrayed on a page with their accompanying diagnoses written in crabbed Latin script alongside.

An etymology of thought connects the venerable scribe who made those marks with the ancient Greeks, who conceived of buildings and statues as having a rhythm of their own. Not as a metaphor deriving from musical language but as an underlying conception shared by both music and material. This is the idea of rhythm as form, defined by flow and pause, an idea of pulse connecting all things.

For a set of cultural reasons we don’t have room to go into here, such a nuanced understanding of rhythm as order and how it relates to the actual physical pulse of the body, no longer holds much cache within the Western biomedical establishment. However if one looks at traditional Chinese medicine similar ideas emerge.

In traditional Chinese medicine, palpitation is diagnosed through a complex lexicon of 29 separate pulses (slippery, surging, knotted, choppy, hesitant, leathery etc.) encompassed by the notion of ‘Mo’. Mo is a definition of pulse that is less a beat and more a flow or circulation, running through a series of channels that link the body together.

By reading ‘Mo’ through the wrist of the patient the practitioner of Chinese medicine reads a microcosm of the condition of the body, the condition of it’s qi, the balance of yin and yang, heat, vitality, problems with the spleen or the ear or the stomach or the heart, diagnosed by varying pulses.

In turn the body itself can be read as a microcosm of society and the wider cosmic order. Using ‘Mo’ to read various flows does not end at the limits of the body but extend outwards to the world, connecting each individual to a broader system of dynamics. Here again is the idea of pulse as connecting all things.

Through this lens of understanding, the pulse, the body and society are three levels of the same order. The physician who operates at the level of the individual pulse is operating at the lowest level of his calling; Physical intervention and treatment of a specific illness that is tangibly apparent. At the higher level the physician tends to the individual to ensure that illness does not emerge in the first place. At the highest level the physician operates on society as a whole, enacting policies that ensure individual treatment is no loner necessary. Yet at every level the basic diagnostic task is to reject disorder and affirm order. Mandelbrot sets unfolding and replicating, from the reading of the pulse to the cosmic order of the entire universe.

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