The theoretical basis of traditional Chinese medicine lies in Confucianism and Daoism. Hence traditional Chinese medicine's perspectives on death have continuity with both the Confucian and the Daoist views on death. This essay analyzes many ancient Chinese medical texts and tries to articulate their views on death and dying.
Concerning the definition of death, traditional Chinese medicine offers two theories. One theory sees death as the loss of shen (spirit) or the separation of shen (spirit) from the body. Shen is located in our vital organs, not just in the brain. Another theory sees death as the dispersion of qi (vital force) away from human body. Both theories regard human death as not just a biological event; it is regarded as more spiritual and social than physiological. In other words, human death is not defined in the same way as death of other organisms is defined.
Chinese medicine aspires not only to cure diseases but also to enhance health. In order to achieve this goal, medicine often uses death as a threat to remind people to keep fit and to cultivate healthy life styles. Only when one is constantly death-conscious will one be able to stay away from death. ln traditional idiom, the goal of medicine is to cure a disease before the disease arises.
Many traditional Chinese medical codes of practice stipulate that doctors should terminate treatment when the patient is in a terminal condition rather than prolong the agony. A tormented life is considered worse than death and is detestable. Hence there has been a strong interest to detect vital signs other than breathing and heartbeat so that an early detection of death can be possible. One can then avert death when it just starts to arise. However, once death is diagnosed as inevitable traditional Chinese medicine deems that it is unfitting for human beings to meddle with nature through strenuous efforts to avert death.
Though traditional Chinese medicine fully acknowledges human mortality, it also advises people to transcend death. While Confucianism emphasizes the cultivation of virtue, Daoism stresses the oneness with nature so that one does not fear death when death arrives and does not delight in life while one is enjoying life. In so doing, the negating and annihilating effect of death will be mitigated.