Is It Cultural Appropriation When Non-Chinese Practice Chinese Medicine?

by | Jun 12, 2017 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

cultural appropriation

This question showed up on one of the Facebook group I belonged to last week. (Yes, I said belonged)

Stay with me, I will answer the question eventually. Before I continue, know that the guy who posted this question did not reply to the thread.

Some of the replies:
“I am sooo over this concept of cultural appropriation. It’s pretty one sided. It’s such a double standard.”
“I think the whole notion is a bunch of shit.”
“It’s medicine, so it’s perfectly appropriate to share ways of healing, this question is nonsense.”

And the “winner“: “I really don’t care if it is considered cultural appropriation. This medicine is beneficial for all and is beyond this type of labeling.”

Right! Do I engage or walk away? I engaged.


Some thought it would be funny to write:
“Does it mean if I eat Mexican food, it’s considered cultural appropriating?”
“What about dreadlocks? Can I wear them?”
“We should all just focus on being extraordinary. Why can’t we all get along?”

Why can’t we all get along?!

Because if you’ve never been on the receiving end of racist comments, WE CANNOT ALL GET ALONG.
If you’ve never stood up for a visible minority or someone who is less fortunate than you, We. Cannot. All. Get. Along.

Then a guy posted: “Don’t make this a race issue.”

By saying that, you have just made it into a race issue.

I left the group the next day. The experience left a bad taste in my mouth and I did not want to be part of a group that is toxic. It takes a lot of emotional labor and mental energy to take on racism. It also takes a lot of chocolate.

Appreciate vs Appropriate

Cultural Appreciation

When you appreciate another’s culture, you take the time to understand the history of the culture and practices. You respect the practices and you Do Not claim it as your own.

For example, if you love African art, buy it from an African artist. Support their crafts and treat them with respect.

A good question to ask is “When I purchase or wear this item, are the people of this culture the ones who are benefiting?” If the answer is No, walk away.

Cultural Appropriation

In this guide from Simon Fraser University, Appropriation is defined as “to take something that belongs to someone else for one’s own use.”

Cultural appropriation occurs when a member of a dominant culture takes intellectual property, traditional knowledge or artifacts from someone else’s culture, especially from a visible minority’s culture or race without permission. For example, wearing Native American headdresses during Halloween or at music festivals.

One of my close girlfriends is Indian and when she got married, she invited me to wear a sari she bought in India for her bridesmaids. On her wedding day, her aunties taught us how to wear the saris and explained the significance of it. Have I worn the sari since? No, it’s been 10 years since her wedding and the sari is in the closet where I can admire it.

Can Cultural Appropriation Cause Harm in Chinese Medicine?

Q: Is It Cultural Appropriation When Non-Chinese Practice Chinese Medicine?

The answer is No when:

  • You went to an accredited Chinese Medicine school to learn the medicine and was taught by qualified doctors.
  • You do it respectfully and give credit where it’s due.
  • You respect and understand the history of the practice.

When does cultural appropriation happen in Chinese medicine?

When other healing practitioners realized the benefits of Chinese Medicine, cupping or acupuncture and decide to “add” it to their repertoire by taking a weekend course. During the 2016 Olympics when Michael Phelps talked about how cupping helped with his performance, a number of patients showed up with cupping marks done by practitioners from other modalities.

When you make your clinic look more “Asian” because you think it will attract more patients.

Does Cultural Appropriation in Chinese Medicine cause harm?

Of course, here are two examples:

1. A patient had blisters on his back after his body worker decided to do cupping on him with no training.

2. A patient’s nutritionist with no Chinese medicine training recommended Chinese medicine herbs to help with her constipation. The patient developed headaches and her constipation worsened.

When you do not understand the practice and you decide to use it because you like it or you want to diversify, you are harming the patient’s health. It also gives Chinese Medicine a bad name.


To me, cultural appropriation feels like when you come into my home, touch all my things and not only do you declare that all my stuff are yours, you think you can improve on what I have.



Respect. Ask for permission.

Educate yourself about the issues, the ethical problems and the history of the practices you are interested in.

If you are making money off these practices, give a portion back to help improve the lives of visible minorities.

Honor the traditions when you discuss, teach or use these practices.

It is okay to make mistakes, the important thing is to admit your mistakes and apologize. I too have made mistakes in the past and probably will in the future.

It takes courage to say “I don’t know” and “I will do better next time.”

Think about why you are using/taking these practices.


I share my thoughts here as someone who looks at cultural appropriation first as a visible minority, then as a woman and a practitioner of Chinese Medicine.


I understand that this topic can be sensitive for many people. However, I believe it is important to be aware of how we approach another culture’s traditions and practices.

I encourage you to ask questions if you are unsure. I can tell you that as a visible minority, I welcome questions and engagement when there is mutual respect and understanding.

Most importantly, if you are part of a dominant culture and you are using practices from a visible minority group, ask yourself this:

Would you stand up and protect this group of people if you notice injustice? What would you do if you hear someone say racist comments related to any visible minority groups?

Thank you for listening. If you have any questions, I am happy to direct you to a couple of white friends who do social justice work, they will be happy to answer your questions.

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