When people in Washington D.C. think of acupuncture and Chinese
medicine, the first name that comes to mind is Dr. Jing Nuan Wu. He has
practiced Chinese medicine in the District since1973, and has proved to
be a skillful, articulate, and very persistent advocate for this ancient
healing art, through times when doing so was not necessarily easy or popular.
Dr. Wu is the Chairman of the D.C. Medical Advisory Board on Acupuncture,
a position he calls "one of the most frustrating jobs of my career."
Despite the frustrations inherent in navigating through the murky waters
of the world-renowned D.C. government bureaucracy, Dr. Wu has managed over
the past ten years to bring the ship safely into port-acupuncture by licensed
non-physicians is now legal in Washington.
Perhaps his most meaningful and impressive accomplishment is the creation
of the Green Cross, an inner city clinic for the treatment of drug abuse
with acupuncture and Chinese medicine, located on U Street in Washington.
Without any government funding, Wu and a dedicated staff developed this
facility with sweat from the brow and love from the heart. Their work at
Green Cross is admired far and wide.
In this interview with Dr. Daniel Redwood, Dr. Wu shares his insights on
the causes of drug abuse, and its effects on society as a whole. He also
offers a foreboding commentary on the effects that widespread drug usage
has on social stability, drawing a comparison between what is happening
today in the United States and what happened in China earlier in this century,
when a substantial proportion of the population was addicted.
Wu is a translator of various classics of Chinese medicine, including Ling
Shu (The Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic), and Yi Jing (The Book of Changes),
published by the University of Hawaii Press. He can be reached at the Taoist
Health Institute, 2141 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20007.
Jing Nuan Wu Interview
DR: What led to your decision to become an acupuncturist? Do you feel
that you have found your true calling?
JING NUAN WU: That's a long and interesting question. I had an extreme
crisis in my life, and one night in Asia my ancestors came to me and said,
"It's time for you to do service." I had been commissioned to
write a book on Chinese medicine and, when I realized it worked, I said
"forget about writing the book, why don't you do it!" So that's
what happened. Instead of writing about it, I began to practice it.
DR: Are there any parallels in Chinese history which you feel relate
to the current drug crisis in America and the Western world? Is it truly
JING NUAN WU: That's the reason why I started Green Cross seven years
ago. I could see striking parallels between what happened in China in the
middle of the 19th Century and what's happening in the United States today.
Perhaps in the decline of every great empire, drugs may have in one form
or another (whether it was alcohol or other drugs) played an important part.
Once a certain percentage of the population becomes addicted, the entire
culture usually is lost, because it not only affects the lower classes,
it affects the so-called upper classes. The most disturbing sign I have
seen of that over the last number of years, is that I know the outstanding
senior in one of the suburban high schools locally here in Washington was
dealing drugs. And he was never caught. He is now in an Ivy League college,
and I think that that type of thing bodes very ill for the future.
DR: How high a percentage is needed?
JING NUAN WU: About ten per cent is the magic number, and we're very
close to that. I also treat, in my private practice, people of means and
power. I've had patients come in who have spent as much as $100,000 a year
on cocaine. This type of statistic never is included in the statistics used
for drug use, because of course these people would never admit to being
DR: So you feel the statistics on drug abuse are vastly understated?
JING NUAN WU: It's like taking statistics in any population. Who's
going to reply?
DR: Why do you feel people use or abuse mind-altering substances?
Is there such a thing as non-abusive usage of these drugs?
JING NUAN WU: My own belief now is that it has become such a great
problem because of the loss of spiritual values in the community. If you
look at the background of mind-altering drugs, at one time or another they
were always used in spiritual ritual. But without the ritual, the spirit
also is forgotten. Even tobacco was used in smoking, but with ritualistic
purpose. Modern secular society has done away with all of that, and so I
think we have a very real problem.
DR: Do you feel that we as a society are moving any closer to understanding
the roots of the drug crisis?
JING NUAN WU: I think that, in fact the general population is beginning
to understand it. I think that government authorities, and the bureaucracy
that we have asked to deal with drugs, gets further and further away from
the truth. Because it already is a "drug treatment establishment,"
and they really are there to maintain their jobs rather than to look for
something that works. It's like the National Cancer Institute - they've
spent billions upon billions of dollars and really haven't found anything.
But they still want to use the same old methodologies because that's the
way they think.
DR: What are your thoughts on something like the methadone maintenance
JING NUAN WU: I think the methadone maintenance programs are a complete
sham. If one goes back to the original research that the Rockefeller Institutes
did, and looks at what happened in the Yale University reports on the raw
research, the conclusions are completely antagonistic to what the raw research
showed. I did that, and I was horrified.
DR: What did the raw research show?
JING NUAN WU: The raw research showed that there was liver damage,
that there were all sorts of side effects to methadone which were very significant.
That was whitewashed, as far as I'm concerned, in the original reports.
There is now, unfortunately, a methadone establishment.
The unconceivable thing that is happening right now, is that because there
is no detox procedure for crack cocaine, the drug treatment programs in
localities are in fact using methadone as a downer to get people off crack,
which in every stretch of the imagination is crazy.
DR: Is it more difficult to withdraw from methadone than from some
of these other substances?
JING NUAN WU: I think it's harder to withdraw from methadone than
it is from heroin.
DR: In the use of acupuncture treatment to help substance abusers
withdraw from their habits, which substances have you had the most success
with, and which have proved the most difficult?
JING NUAN WU: It's not so much substance as length of time. Anyone
who has been a substance abuser for 20 years is going to find it very difficult
to get off, simply because that has permeated his entire lifestyle. The
people we find that come off the most quickly are, let's say, young women
who want to start forming a family. The realize that if they continue that
they are going to damage their children. The problem is, the mothers who
are still abusing drugs usually have gotten so far into the habit that they
don't care anymore, and their children are being born defective.
The other side of the coin that is so horrendous is that the entire drug
treatment establishment is mostly male. So even if you read the guides for
trying to get money in the field, they are all directed towards males. There
is nothing in there for females. Or for Hispanics or Latinos, for instance.
We have patients come in, who want to come in to see us, who have children.
Our receptionist plays with their children while they're in getting treatment.
But almost no drug treatment facility has a nursery or has child care as
part of it. They don't think of it as necessary.
The other thing that is horrendous is that should a woman say that she is
a drug addict, then the chances are that her children could be placed in
foster homes. This part of the problem no one has paid any attention to.
Besides which, the truly addicted woman, who has gone beyond the sense of
caring, is the mother of addicted children, and now of addicted HIV-positive
children. The cost to each of those human beings is incalculable.
DR: Have you sometimes had the feeling that you are sticking your
finger into the dike?
JING NUAN WU: Every three weeks I say that, you know. (Laughter).
DR: And yet you continue.
JING NUAN WU: Well, I and my associates at Green Cross are doing
the work because we have hoped that it would be an example for other people
to try to do the same thing. The problem is, it's required a great deal
of money, and a great deal of dedication. I know of many groups through
the country that have tried to do what we have done, and they've not been
successful because of the lack of one or the other. I can't tell you how
much dedication it really does take. The staff has burned out. We're basically
on our second group of staff in seven years.
DR: Have there been any examples of responses by government or people
in the community to attempt expand upon or duplicate what you're doing?
JING NUAN WU: Mike Smith [Michael Smith, M.D.] runs the famous clinic
up at Lincoln [Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, New York], and they're seeing
200 or 300 people a day. But they're state-financed, thank God. We've done
this all on our own. We've had no funding from either city or state or federal
governments. This may change next year, but at this moment I wouldn't count
on it. Every time they ask for bids on alternative procedures, usually we
find that it is simply another methadone clinic under another guise.
DR: Do you have to spend a lot of time raising money?
JING NUAN WU: Luckily, our practitioners work for very little. (Laughter).
So what's happened is that no one works full-time except two of the administrative
staff. Everybody else works part-time. They make money outside of this work,
so that they can keep body and soul together. I subsidize the clinic through
my personal work, and one or two of my friends have put in substantial amounts
DR: You are the chairman of the Acupuncture Advisory Committee for
the District of Columbia, which advises the Board of Medicine on the regulation
and licensing of acupuncturists in the District. What thoughts do you have
on the current legal status of acupuncture in the Mid-Atlantic region, and
in the United States in general. How might it be improved?
JING NUAN WU: I think that this has been one of the more frustrating
jobs of my career. Interestingly, the Board of Medicine and we agreed early
on with regard to the guidelines. It then took us three years, and five
lawyers later, to put out basically twelve pages of rules and regulations.
That's because D.C. is mired in a system of bureaucracy that is impossible
That impossibility stems from one critical lack-that they have no one in
the city bureaucracy that can type! So we ended up in a situation where
the lawyers get so frustrated that after five months they quit. In dealing
with this, it wasn't until our fifth lawyer that we finally got the rules
and regulations into a piece where we could publish them. It's that type
of procedure which I think is analogous to the drug situation.
DR: Could you expand more on that analogy?
JING NUAN WU: That there is a lack of coherence to any system in
this society at this moment. It's lost its spiritual value. Government is
meant to do certain jobs. It no longer is doing those jobs. People are simply
taking letters that come in during the day, filing them in their drawer
and forgetting them. There is no value to their work. So this has been the
At times in the past there was value to your religion. there was value to
your family, there was value to your job. Right now it looks as if all of
those values have been lost. So I think people use mind-altering substances
in an attempt to find value. "It makes me feel better." "It
makes me feel great!"
Instead of feeling rotten and a simpleton, or worse.
DR: So it's a misguided response to a valid and life-affirming desire.
JING NUAN WU: I think so.
DR: Is there any valid reason, from your point of view, that acupuncturists
should have to practice under medical supervision. And a related question:
has there any major problem with the sort of independent practice laws that
prevail in California and elsewhere in the West?
JING NUAN WU: As far as I know, there have been very few lawsuits
brought against acupuncturists, and when they have come up, it has been
through the stupidity and negligence of the individual acupuncturist in
most instances. The suits have not basically had to do with medical malfeasance.
On the other hand, I think that we have an interim period at this moment
where many acupuncturists, I feel, probably would do just as well working
with a regular M.D.
I have worked with one in my practice for the last 18 years, and I certainly
don't feel that I've been abused by my associates. In that sense, I think
we offer the best features of both allopathic medicine and Chinese medicine.
However, I think it's perfectly all right to practice independently, like
in Hawaii and California. But you have to understand that the Boards of
Medicine and the legal authorities in most of the states in the United States
where there is no large Asian population, have no familiarity with alternative
forms of medicine.
DR: What do you feel are the major strengths and the major weaknesses
of Western medicine?
JING NUAN WU: The major strength is emergency medicine. There is
no better emergency medicine that has ever existed on the face of the earth.
Certain anatomical and material diagnostic techniques are miraculous. The
use of modern medications for pathogens is far superior to any we have had
in the past. When there is a real bug, modern Western allopathic medicine
usually has the tools to kill it.
It falls down greatly when it has to do with metabolic illnesses and illnesses
that are engendered by what traditional medicines throughout the world would
consider disbalances within the body system itself. Endocrinologists are
the modern doctors who practice the closest to the way traditional medical
people would practice. So too little or too much of a specific substance
disorients the body and causes illness.
The other area where it does not do well is where there is not a causal
feature known, where a diagnosis cannot be made. If you can't make a diagnosis,
it doesn't exist. So with something like pain, which has no definition in
Western medicine, things like acupuncture work very, very well.
DR: What do you feel are the major strengths and major weaknesses
of Oriental medicine?
JING NUAN WU: I think the major strength will come in what I call
the physio-psychic ailments, which Western medicine turned around and called
psychosomatic. There are problems which I think are engendered by disbalance
of the physical system that affect the mental, which are little understood
in Western medicine. They thought, because of Freud and the development
of psychotherapy, it was the reverse. But I think that many times, for example,
you're of a bilious nature because you have something wrong with your bile,
not because you're emotionally angry. I think that's an area where Chinese
medicine can shine. Modern medicine now calls it the psychoimmune factor,
but really the psychoimmune factor is nothing more than psychosomatic ideas
under a different name.
DR: And the weak points of Oriental medicine?
JING NUAN WU: The weak point of Oriental medicine is that it never
developed a germ theory. If there had been a Pasteur in Chinese medicine,
then it would be complete. Unhappily, there wasn't one, and that's why in
China today too, Western medicine is taught side by side with traditional
DR: How can a culture such as ours most effectively integrate healing
arts practices from another part of the world, which are based on an alternative
paradigm for understanding life and health?
JING NUAN WU: I think we're going to be forced to do it, because
this system is working very well on certain levels, and has lost its effectiveness
on others. The whole Taoist approach to life, which is a way of life and
a way of living, rather than looking for outside standards, forces you to
create inside standards. That's always much more difficult, because it's
much easier to go with the crowd. But the teachings in this area are very
profound, and they'll gradually take hold.
DR: How widespread do you imagine acupuncture will become in the
West in your lifetime?
JING NUAN WU: The problem with acupuncture is that it allows people
who are not very good to get results. It's a very forgiving therapy. Consequently,
the Nei Ching, the Yellow Emperor's Book, and also other classical
Chinese medical literature, says that acupuncture becomes faddish, that
it has a great growth and then it falls into disuse, because many people
get into it, and practice without qualification. That's my fear. Not that
the standards should be more rigorous within academia, or that the testing
procedures will weed those out . . . sometimes the people who can get the
best marks on written tests are the worst practitioners. So this brings
up the old problem again-that a system of apprenticeship is probably by
far the better system to go through, but in its way, it's nonefficient.
DR: In terms of how many people it can turn out?
JING NUAN WU: Right. And also, it's far more rigorous in certain
hands-on work. I would hate to have a research doctor be my general physician.
And so that's one of the problems, and one of the warnings within Taoist
practice. You know: "Fear those who get the best marks on tests."
DR: Do you find differences in the way acupuncture is practiced by
professional acupuncturists as opposed to physicians who have taken several
JING NUAN WU: I think that the physician who practices acupuncture
should be subjected to the same criteria to get licensed to do acupuncture,
as acupuncturists. I can't practice as an M.D., but I certainly feel I know
as much about things like endocrinology as anybody that's out there. But
I can't take 250 hours of it and practice. So I think that to that extent,
the same standard should be held by all. That's why, in D.C., I insisted
on a practical test for M.D.'s as well as acupuncturists.
DR: What role do herbs play in Chinese medicine as practiced in the
JING NUAN WU: As practiced in the West, it still is a very minor
part, unfortunately, because the authorities jailed a couple of practitioners
about 15 years ago in San Francisco. It's perfectly all right for herbalists
to use herbs on people of the same race, it seems. Or if I give herbs to
black people downtown, no one seems to care. But should I start giving them
to Caucasians, all sorts of alarm bells ring. Luckily, within the last ten
years (1980-1990), that's changed a great deal. This is very important,
because acupuncture is a small fraction of Chinese medicine. By far, the
greater part of Chinese medicine lies in its herbal therapies.
DR: To what degree do you use herbs in your practice?
JING NUAN WU: I've gradually increased my use of herbal formulas
in the last five years, to where it's about a third of my practice now.
On the other hand, I feel that I'm a very competent acupuncturist, and even
though I started as an herbalist, I felt I could not continue because of
the horrendous legal restrictions on the use of herbs in the United States.
So I've only gotten back to it in the last five or six years.
DR: Do you use standardized formulas, or do you do a personalized
preparation for the particular individual?
JING NUAN WU: I use anything that I think will be efficacious. If
I can use a standard formula, and it's inexpensive, I'll use it. On other
patients where I think a much more complex solution is necessary, I'll go
ahead and do that, and many times I'll even consult other people within
my own staff to see if we can come up with an herbal formula that meets
DR: To what extent has acupuncture been validated through scientific
research? What areas for such study would you like to see pursued?
JING NUAN WU: This is a very difficult problem, because you cannot
do a double-blind study. There's no such thing as a placebo point. In Chinese
theory, any trauma produces a superficial, or a temporary, acupuncture point.
So besides the points on the major channels of energy, any time you kick
somebody, that's an acupuncture point. Any time you prick somebody with
a needle, that becomes an acupuncture point.
Double blinds are theoretically, as far as I'm concerned, complete nonsense
anyway. Because to try to get hard scientific fact within a biological system
of testing, is impossible. No biological organism is the same - ever! You
change from minute to minute, you change from day to day, you change from
hour to hour, you change from month to month.
I feel that all you're trying to do there is statistical averages, and that
the background is very soft. The so-called double blind is not, as far as
I'm concerned, very rigorous. You can use that type of modality for physics,
but for any biological sciences, I think that it's the blind leading the
I do think that what you can do, is that you can get applied research where
you can say, "Here's a group doing this kind or work, and there's a
group doing some other type of therapy, and at the end of six months or
a year, we'll see how they stack up." We tried to get this within proposals
we've written to the government for acupuncture and drugs, comparing it
to methadone. We've been shot down each time.
DR: Any reasons given?
JING NUAN WU: No reasons are ever given. Regarding research on acupuncture
that has been conducted, that there are significant things on a biochemistry
basis that have been discovered. There's no question that there is a peptide
change, a chemical change, within the brain. There is no question that there
is an adrenal response. All you have do do is prick somebody with a needle,
and you'll see the chi response that the Chinese are always talking about.
This is normally a histamine response. You either get a welting, or a change
of coloration around the skin, or you'll feel some type of sensation. According
to Western medicine, that's usually an adrenal response.
DR: Am I hearing you correctly? Are you saying that double blind
studies are not even valid and worthwhile in testing patient response to
JING NUAN WU: Yes. The whole idea of the double blind study is fraught
with holes, because no organism is the same.
DR: How then can a society distinguish between therapies which are
useful and therapies which are not useful?
JING NUAN WU: I think that applied research is the way that you have
to go. And, in fact, that is the way used for modern pharmacological
substances, because even after they have been approved by the FDA, it takes
years before you know what the side effects are. Then, the general population
starts to scream about it . . . And it's only after a number of years that
you really know what's going on.
If you read the PDR's [Physician's Desk Reference, the most widely used
medical drug manual] you'll realize that the double blinds really were meaningless.
They weren't done on people who were 65. Almost every older person in this
country is overmedicated, because the standards used for drug testing are
based on studies of healthy 30-year old individuals.
DR: I was not aware of that. You're saying that double blind studies
exclude the elderly?
JING NUAN WU: Right.
DR: That's outrageous.
JING NUAN WU: They don't try them on children either. You see so
many elderly people walking around in a fog, simply because they've been
overmedicated. The doctor has been following the research, which has been
done on people who are not in the same situation as his patients.
DR: So you feel it would be important for governmental bodies to
allot an increasing portion of research funds for applied research, including
applied research in holistic areas such as acupuncture and Chinese medicine.
JING NUAN WU: Absolutely, I think applied research is really the
only way . . . because it's always going to be a statistical format. 20
percent of the population is not going to respond favorably to any therapy,
no matter how great you are in your specialty. There will be a certain percentage
of people who will come in to see you that you cannot help. That's why it's
acupuncture and moxibustion [a method of heating herbs directly over an
acupuncture point]. Even there, there is an alternative, because many times
there will be cases where acupuncture will not help, when heat will. I think
that that's written into the nature of survival of the species.
DR: Thank you, Dr. Wu.
Daniel Redwood is a chiropractor, writer and musician who lives in Virginia
Beach, Virginia. He is the author of A Time
to Heal: How to Reap the Benefits of Holistic Health (A.R.E. Press),
and is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Alternative
and Complementary Medicine. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
©1995 Daniel Redwood, D.C.