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 Interviews with People Who Make a Difference: Chinese Medicine in Modern America  
Interview with Jing Nuan Wu LAc
   as interviewed by Daniel Redwood DC

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

: 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 a crisis?

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 involved.

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 program?

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 of money.

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 to understand.

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 problem.

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 medicine.

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." (Laughter).

DR: Do you find differences in the way acupuncture is practiced by professional acupuncturists as opposed to physicians who have taken several weekend courses?

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 West?

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 the problem.

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 blind.

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 medications?

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?


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

©1995 Daniel Redwood, D.C.
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 About The Author
Daniel Redwood, DC, is a Professor at Cleveland Chiropractic College - Kansas City. He is editor-in-chief of Health Insights Today ( and serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of the......moreDaniel Redwood DC
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