Lorraine Wilcox Published by Blue Poppy Press First Edition May 2008 Paperback, 278 pages, price £19.95
(Reviewed by Merlin Young, EJOM Vol. 6 No. 1)
This book, or one very like it, is many years overdue. Moxibustion, in contrast to its superior sibling acupuncture, has been largely ignored in western literature on zhen jiu (acu-moxa), the word that is generally used in Mandarin Chinese to describe the practice of acupuncture.
What this book very clearly demonstrates is that in the canon of traditional oriental medicine this has been far from always the case. Firstly, the earliest recorded medical literature in Chinese contained scrolls prescribing moxa and describing the channel system and they predate any extant authentic texts describing needle therapy. Secondly, Wilcox’s detailed history of moxa use (chapter 2), as well as her comprehensive ‘timeline of medical books on moxibustion’ (appendix 2) strongly suggest that the current preference for acupuncture over moxibustion has been far from the norm in the 2000 odd years since needling’s supremacy first truly emerged with the Nei Jing.
Wilcox has chosen to focus on this fascinating and relatively unexplored subject in two ways. In Part 1 she produces by far the most comprehensive and thorough discourse on moxibustion so far available in English. This in itself justifies this book’s publication and its inclusion on any academic institution’s library shelf, and it also stakes its claim for a place on the shelf of any serious student of oriental medicine. In Part 2 she homes in on moxibustion’s particular practice and application in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Wilcox suggests that this period represents the apex of development in authentic traditional medical practice in China, coming as it did at the end of sixteen hundred years of continuous development at a time which immediately preceded its penetration by western influence and thought. Three authors in particular attract her attention: Yang Jizhou (the author of the Zhen Jiu Da Cheng, Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion), Zhang Jiebin (the author of the Lei Jing Tu Yi, Illustrated Supplement to the Categorised Classics and the Jing Jue Quan Shi, Jing Yue’s Complete Works), and Li Shizhen (the author of the Ben Cao Gong Mu, Great Pharmacopoeia). Her approach to the subject is one of a true scholar.
Part 1 contains a fascinating section on the methods of moxibustion which is likely to provide fresh information for almost anyone in the field. ‘Reed tube moxibustion’, and the practice of lighting moxa using the power of the sun magnified through lenses of ice were new ones, for instance, to me. It also contains a frank appraisal of the contraindications or otherwise of the use of moxa in heat patterns which has arguably become a mistaken norm of modern practice, especially in the west. Furthermore, whilst modern Chinese practice tends to favour indirect moxibustion techniques in the form of the moxa roll, Wilcox reveals early applications of the roll which were far more (frighteningly) direct in their nature, as well as complex prescriptions for their composition comprising mixtures of medicinal powders as well as the more standard processed mugwort.
But the book’s focus resolutely concentrates on the direct techniques which were the primary modi operandi of Zhang and Yang. In doing so Wilcox unapologetically confronts the difficulties inherent in this technique with blistering and suppurative techniques often being regarded as essential for effect. She also makes no effort to ignore the elephant-in-the-room of moxa’s associations with treatments for afflictions from ghost possession and its use in exorcist treatments, which feature regularly in the examined texts, but which have largely been excised from current versions of oriental medicine by dint of the medico-political correctness of the modern age in east and west.
In the course of her examination, very definite themes emerge; moxibustion was clearly used for centuries to treat intractable disease, often when medicinals and acupuncture had failed, as well as being used as a preventative therapy and for the promotion of longevity. Many of the types of illnesses described reflect a different age of medial practice; we are not often confronted in our treatment room by patients with scrofula, dog bites or massive abscesses or boils for instance. Nevertheless, Wilcox concludes, quite correctly, that these largely forgotten traditions deserve far more attention than they currently attract.
Her work is imbued with very thorough scholarship (indeed it evolved directly from her PhD dissertation on the subject), and this may prove to be off-putting for some who might prefer a more superficial or casual read. My advice is to persist, however; there is a load of food for thought contained in these pages, although at times the depth of her study results in a certain amount of possibly avoidable repetition.
I am reluctant to offer particular criticisms to such a praiseworthy and welcome work, but I do have a couple. The book is surprisingly devoid of references to more recent developments in the practice of moxibustion in Japan (where direct techniques still predominate and a wealth of associated immunological research exists). Towards the end of her work she endorses research in this subject. Some of the questions she raises are actually typical of some of the research that has already been carried out in Japan.
I also found myself a little disappointed that Wilcox, despite years of self-evident practical personal experience, chose not to reveal much of herself and her own personal experiences in the field of which she so authoratively writes, preferring very much to stay in the shadows of these Ming masters. I found only tantalising glimpses of Wilcox herself in a couple of footnotes. My feeling is that this choice perhaps left the final subsection of her book (‘What is clinically relevant today?’) somewhat weaker than it deserved to be. It could be argued that this section may be the most important section of all for a modern practitioner interested in these relatively ‘lost’ territories of the acu-moxa traditions. ‘Can we revive or adapt some of the older practices and make them relevant today?’ she writes. Arcane treatment protocols such as ‘Riding the Bamboo Horse’, or moxa treatments for rabid dog bites, as undoubtedly fascinating as they are, probably contain much less relevance today than they did, but the unchallengeable fact remains that moxibustion, when carried out in certain largely unexplored ways, is an extremely powerful treatment.
This book is a treasure, however, despite these minor criticisms and should rightfully establish itself as a landmark publication on the subject of acu-moxa in the west.
Merlin Young Merlin Young is a practising acupuncturist in the UK, interested in the subject of moxibustion, especially in its possible application in the field of primary care in the Third World for treating infectious disease. He is a co-founder of MOXAFRICA, a charity set up to explore this idea.