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Lost in Space and Etymology

In this post, I want to tell you about two identity crises. But first, a word of encouragement:

I'm going to spend some time talking about the Chinese Medicine profession. It might sound at times like I'm writing for Chinese Medicine practitioners. I'm not. If you are not a Chinese Medicine practitioner, this post is for you. I'm going to talk about the Chinese Medicine profession in order to introduce you to one of its secrets. Something even many of its practitioners aren't aware of. Something hidden in its name.

But before any of that, I feel like I need to talk about a popular television show. Maybe I'm having an identity crisis.


There was a series that ran on CBS in the 1960s called Lost In Space. It was inspired by the novel The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann David Wyss, about a Swiss family of immigrants who becomes shipwrecked on an island in the East Indes when their expedition goes off course. Wyss wrote the novel with the intention of using it to teach his four sons about morality, family duty, and the natural world.

The TV adaptation set the family in outer space (instead of at sea) and crash-landed them on an alien planet. It was actually an adaptation of an adaptation; based off a comic book by Gold Key Comics titled Space Family Robinson that, in turn, was adapted from the The Swiss Family Robinson story. I watched a few episodes of the show again recently. It's light, colorful, campy. It doesn't have the strong moral undertones of its original predecessor.

In the first episode, the Swiss family - John, Maureen, Judy, Penny, Will - and crew prepare to set off on a five-and-a-half-year mission to colonize space aboard the spacecraft Jupiter 2. The ship's doctor, Zachary Smith, is revealed to be an agent of some unnamed, sinister nation. He sabotages the mission by programing an on-board robot to destroy critical systems on the spacecraft sometime into its mission. Unfortunately for Smith, he ends up joining the fated journey when he gets trapped on board during launch. The ship and crew become lost in space and eventually crash-land on the planet Priplanus.

Throughout the series, Smith frequently endangers the expedition, but he changes over time. He goes from sinister spy to self-serving coward. If you watch the show's end credits, you'll see that Jonathan Harris, the actor that played Smith, is always billed as a "Special Guest Star". This is because the show's writers didn't expect the character to last beyond a few episodes. Harris had other ideas. He planned to win over the audience and keep his job, so he began rewriting his lines and making Smith's character more interesting; more colorful and flamboyant. He stole the show.

Lost in Space was cancelled after three seasons due to declining ratings and high costs. Some critics felt that it had become too campy in seasons two and three while it focused on the antics of Dr. Smith. Others loved Smith's character and credit the show's camp with its success, similar to another popular TV show of the time, Batman.

I don't know who's right. I have a pretty strong stomach for camp, but I also have a strong sense of truth. A show and its characters need to be believable for me to watch. I don't find Smith believable. Harris altered Dr. Smith to gain attention. And the show's creator, Irwin Allen, amped up the camp over time to boost ratings. The result was loss of truth and, eventually, an audience. When Netflix developed a remake of the series in 2018, they chose to remove the camp and make Smith a minor character.

This post isn't meant to be a review. I'm sure it has occurred to you that I'm no television or science fiction expert, and you probably shouldn't consult this blog when you're searching for a good TV show or movie to watch. I write about Chinese Medicine, mainly as a way to help people cope with crisis, and I think Lost in Space had a crisis: a crisis of identity. Harris and Allen didn't think what they had would be popular, so they changed it.

That's what I want to talk about, because that's exactly what's happening in Chinese Medicine.


"Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)" is the name of the official medical system that houses acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, and some other therapies such as cupping, moxibustion, tuina, and guasha. It was branded by the Chinese government in the 1960s then exported throughout the world. That's a story fraught with controversy and a story for another time.

Most people practicing acupuncture have studied TCM at some point - they had to to pass a test for licensure - but TCM isn't the official name of their profession in the U.S. It's "Acupuncture". Forty-two out of fifty U.S. states use the term "Acupuncturist" as a professional title. Of the fifty state associations responsible for protecting and advancing the practice of acupuncture in the U.S., not one uses the words "Chinese Medicine" in their name.

And there have been many names. One such association in Washington State, where I used to practice, started in 1985 as the Acupuncture Association of Washington (AAW) then changed its name to the Washington Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Association (WAOMA). Then it became the Washington East Asian Medicine Association (WEAMA) and finally the Washington Acupuncture and Eastern Medicine Association (WAEMA).

My university, Bastyr, changed the name of its acupuncture department while I was a student such that I started in the Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (AOM) department and ended in the Acupuncture and East Asian Medicine (AEAM) department. The school in Oregon that gave me my doctorate is contemplating a name change right now. Options are: Oregon College of Oriental Medicine (OCOM), Oregon College of Asian Medicine (OCAM), Oregon College of East Asian Medicine (OCEAM), Oregon College of Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine (OCAHM), Oregon College of Chinese Medicine (OCCM), Oregon College of Integrative Medicine (OCIM), or Oregon College of Health Sciences (OCHS).

The acupuncture profession is truly lost in space.

Let's look at the choice of a single therapy, "acupuncture", as an official name for the profession. It seems narrow at first - because it omits the rest of Chinese Medicine - but it makes sense when you think about it in terms of marketing and advertising. "Chinese Medicine" isn't a recognized term in America. It doesn't get many people's attention. When it does, it inspires little more than curiosity or confusion: Chinese Medicine? What is that?

Calling the medicine "Chinese" also has the potential to alienate people in areas where China is not popular, especially in the central time zone and the south. The term "acupuncture" is recognizable, popular, good for all time zones. If we use it, we might get to keep our jobs. That's just good marketing sense.

When WEAMA announced they were considering another name change in 2018, there was an uproar of opinion from acupuncturists across the state. So WEAMA put out a survey. One of the questions they asked was about whether or not the profession should unite under the word "acupuncturist". 83% of respondents said yes. They must have been thinking about marketing.

When you dig deeper into the issue, however, you see that something else is happening. There are acupuncturists in Washington, across the U.S., and all over the world who practice styles of acupuncture that aren't strictly Chinese, such as Five Element Acupuncture, esoteric acupuncture, and acupuncture systems that evolved in the neighboring Asian countries of Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Using the word "Chinese" marginalizes these practices. Using the word "acupuncture" doesn't.

What's happening in the acupuncture profession is a kind of differentiation - a movement from homogeneity to heterogeneity and from simplicity to complexity. Differentiation can be beneficial to a system when it allows for a diverse set of activities to be performed in service of a common goal - e.g. a variety of therapies are needed to heal human pain, which comes in a variety of forms. The problem occurs when core structure is lost.

An easy way to understand what I mean is to imagine the process of differentiation that occurs in the human body at the cellular level during development. The human body is made up of many cells that develop from a single cell, a zygote. As cells divide, specific genes within each cell's DNA are expressed, and the cells begin to specialize (differentiate) which allows for the production of a variety of tissues and functions. Importantly, however, the DNA remains ever intact and uniquely human. It must, otherwise cells wouldn't be able to work together to make a whole person.

Acupuncturists have differentiated into a myriad of styles and approaches. This allows the profession to effectively treat a multitude of different health problems, and it allows individual acupuncturists to stand out from the group. The question is, Is some part of Chinese Medicine's DNA getting lost in the process?


The Mandarine name for Chinese Medicine looks like this: 中医. The second character, 医 (yi ), means "medicine". The first character, 中 (zhong), tells us that it is Chinese. A quick aside:

The most common Mandarine name for China is 中国. Notice the character 中 (zhong) again followed by the character 国 (guo), meaning "country". 中 (zhong) is often used as a reference to China, but it literally means "center" or "middle". China's name, 中国, literally means "Middle Country".

Some people have assumed, wrongly, that the Chinese chose this name because they imagine China to be at the center of the universe. That's a narrow and somewhat ignorant interpretation. 中 (zhong) is a philosophical term that has shaped Chinese culture since ancient times. In addition to its literal meanings, it represents ideas like moderation and balance, and it illuminates a life-path that avoids the kinds of extremes and excesses that tend to lead to poor health and misfortune.

中 (zhong) also carries an association with the Earth. Ancient Chinese philosophy exploded at a time when China was an agricultural society, most heavily populated around the rich, fertile lands of the Yellow River Valley, in central China. There, in the middle, the Earth's importance was made manifest every day to the ancient Chinese people. It was said to "give birth to all things".

These ideas were an important part of Chinese culture and philosophy; important enough to name a country after them.

In the previous post, I said that the foundational Chinese Medicine text, the Yellow Emperor's Internal Classic, was the application of ancient Chinese cultural and philosophical concepts to the practice of healing disease. In other words, Chinese Medicine comes directly from ancient Chinese culture. Doesn't it seem likely, then, that the character 中 (zhong) carries the same meaning in Chinese Medicine that it does in China as a whole? Aren't we really talking about Middle Medicine, Moderation Medicine, or Balance Medicine?

When we so casually push 中 (zhong) aside, don't we lose some of that meaning?

This is what happened to the original Lost In Space series. As Smith and the show differentiated toward camp, the Robinson family characters were pushed aside. They were given less care and focus, and so the relationships between them lost depth and color. In the end, some core meaning of the Swiss Family Robinson stories - duty to family and family unity - was lost. An audience will stick around for only so long after meaning departs.

At the core of Chinese (Middle) Medicine, are moderation, balance, and connectedness with the Earth. If they are forgotten in the process of differentiation, we will lose meaning and our power to heal. Then we will most certainly lose our audience.

I've been calling these "identity crises" because they are. The word "crisis" comes from the Greek word "krísis " meaning "decision". It is defined as "an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending; especially : one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome." (Mirriam-Webster)

The two examples in this post involve loss of meaning, truth, power, and even livelihood. These are highly undesirable outcomes, and they come from decisions made by the people involved around the question of identity: Who are we going to be?

Are we going to be a series about campy hijinks or a series about family duty?

Are we going to be a medicine about the myriad of ways to use an acupuncture needle or a medicine about healing through moderation and nature?

It's tempting to take sides. But if you've read this far, hopefully you're thinking, It can be both! A TV show can be campy and have meaning. And Chinese Medicine can have many names as long as its practitioners don't forget the meaning of its original name.

The issue, after all, is only balance.

I have way more to say about balance. It's the subject of a two-part miniseries that I'm dropping into the blog next, which will apply the notion of balance to another identity crisis similar to the ones above. Except this one's much more serious. The very survival of our species is at stake. This one's about our identity as humans.


PS For a sneak peek, here's one last bit of etymology: The word "human" comes, in part, from the Proto-Indo-European word "(dh)ghomon" ("earthling" or "earthly being") which is from the root "dhghem" ("earth"). So you see, it is not only through Chinese language and philosophy that we find our association with the Earth. We are all creatures connected to the Earth's surface, and if we're not careful to remember that, we could lose our footing. Then where would we be?? 🚀


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