Perspective, #11, 29 August 2023 | Centre for East Asian Studies

Traditional Healing Practices in East Asia

Vaishnavi Joshi

Traditional healing methods have been practised across Asia since time immemorial. Before Western medicine was introduced in the country, many individuals (traditional healers) were successfully treating the population suffering from a wide range of physical and psychological ailments. Even after centuries, this practice continues to be an integral part of Eastern culture.

These healing practices can be traced back to the Tang dynasty, with a heavy influence of the Taoist philosophy in its foundation. The goal is to create a balance between all living organisms; traditional eastern healing practices are centred around using readily available local resources to treat a range of physical and psychological ailments with a spiritual perspective. The common foundational principle observed across East Asia emphasises a holistic approach towards healing, with the prime focus being the individual rather than just the disease. 

In recent years, there has been a rapid acceleration of Traditional Eastern Healing Practices across the globe that is seen in the form of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Traditional Korean Medicine (Hanbang), Traditional Japanese Medicine (Kampo), and Traditional Mongolian Medicine. While all traditional healing practices existing in the Eastern belt act as tributaries of Traditional Chinese Medicine, these practices subsequently developed into unique healing systems adapting to the climate, culture, and available resources in the respective regions.

Shift of Traditional Healing Medicine towards Commercialisation

Traditional healing practices have a ubiquitous nature. While earlier, these practices were seen to be predominantly practised in communities with minimal access to Western healthcare and provided individuals to seek affordable healthcare. However, recent research indicates that these practices, for example, herbal treatments, can be more expensive. Since most traditional healing practices have been established as complementary and alternative medicines in today’s scenario, these remedies are not covered by insurers and can only be self-financed. Thus slowly, we see a transition of these practices from an alternative healing system to a luxury service. A similar trend is seen in India, Vietnam, Korea, Tanzania and other countries globally, where it is observed that many establishments charge substantially higher prices than those associated with biomedicine. Moreover, due to commercialisation of these practices, it creates several conflicts between medicine-production companies and traditional healers. 


The establishment of the Pharmaceutical Act of Korea in 1993 provides insight into possible conflicts that accompanies commercialisation of traditional healing methods. The 1993 Pharmaceutical Act in Korea provided pharmacists with the autonomy to prescribe and distribute herbal remedies which led to a conflict between traditional healers and pharmacists with the former raising questions regarding the credibility of pharmaceutical companies to assume their traditional practices and the lack of support they received from the state to support and develop Traditional Healing Practices.

This instance raises concern over the profiteering of Eastern practices by healthcare models and establishments, inadvertently marginalising the traditional healing community, and capitalising on products based on cultural philosophies. To take a recent instance, we see a current trend of indulging in Korean skin-care products that are marketed as indigenous formulas, having roots in Hanbang. We observe a mass production of these products with little to no mention of the significance and proper application of these practices. 

With a rapidly growing market for these practices, a valiant effort has been made by government authorities to streamline the ethical production of these healing methods to act as complimentary healing systems. For example, the guidelines provided in the ‘National Policy on the Development of Mongolian Traditional Medicine,’ focus on training, standardisation, and empirical research of traditional healing methods to ensure best practices and regulate pharmaceutical production. Similar practices have been observed by government institutions in China, Japan, and South Korea. 

However, with a rapid increase in the popularity of self-care with herbal remedies, an explosive growth of unsupervised, and under-researched over-the-counter products observed a mass production. It raises questions regarding ethics behind ownership, distribution and production of herbal remedies.

Need for Protection of Traditional Medical Knowledge

Many international forums like World Health Organisation, World Trade Organisation, and World Intellectual Property Organisation work towards the protection of traditional medical knowledge as an Intellectual Property to protect its unauthorised use by third parties. Intergovernmental Committees seek to develop legalised systems to provide protection of traditional healing knowledge. Traditional healing practitioners can, however, face significant obstacles in satisfying the conditions to obtain a patent. Previous attempts have been made to establish patents. For example, usage of turmeric for healing wounds, using jamun for diabetes medicine, and the anti-fungal properties of neem, which were then revoked. These practices often fail to be eligible for patent protection as traditional healing practices have been passed down from one generation to another, shared within communities and documented in publicly accessible resources. Furthermore, it can be challenging to assert that a treatment fulfils the inventive clause because traditional healing medications often consist of natural components in their unprocessed form. 

The complications with patenting present us with the need and the opportunity to explore other options for the purpose of protection of traditional healing knowledge. These options involve introducing customary laws and practices which may encapsulate custodial rights over traditional healing practices in order to prevent misuse, or unethical and improper conduct. Additionally, these laws may provide facets of the preservation, use, and exercise of knowledge, how conventional medical knowledge is to be applied, how benefits should be distributed, and how disagreements must be resolved. The contractual agreement may provide another means to protect traditional healing practices, which may consist of informed consent, benefit-sharing, as well as acknowledgement of credits


Many grey areas exist in the process of standardisation of traditional healing practices. The streamlining of these practices may help in curating empirical evidence regarding the efficacy of these practices to establish traditional healing methodologies as a separate healing system instead of being an additional or complementary medication. Moreover, protecting traditional healing practices may inhibit the unethical commercialisation of these practices. Institutionalisation of these practices may help in providing spaces for communities in terms of accessibility, affordability, and establishment of spaces and provide opportunities for traditional healers to gain recognition, and credit for their practices.

About the Author 

Vaishnavi Joshi is an MPhil Clinical Psychology scholar, whose expertise lies in the field of clinical psychology, complimentary and alternative medicine, and traditional healing practices across Asia. She believes in creating therapeutic models that cater to the needs of the Eastern population in a therapeutic setting. Vaishnavi is also a Research Affiliate with the Centre for East Asian Studies.

Perspective  #11, 29 August 2023 | Centre for East Asian Studies