Seen from a distance, it is often difficult to distinguish one person from another. Normally, people have a head and a trunk, two arms and two legs, and apart from body height and circumference there is no way to see a person's individuality without being close enough to perceive the diversity of facial features, hair colours, etc. With ailments the situation is similar. At first glance, there is pain, an ulcer, or diarrhoea. It requires a closer look to distinguish between different types of pain, ulcer, or diarrhoea. In health care, attempts at healing ailments have, since antiquity, oscillated between a more distanced position and a closer look. That is, health care has developed along the lines of, first, concepts of illness grouping together many ailments that appear to look alike, and therefore require similar therapies, and, second, concepts of illness as individual ailments, each requiring an individual therapy. The history of medicine in China offers rich and fascinating data on a cultural discussion concerned with the issue of categorisation and individualism, and provides ample evidence of diverging solutions suggested by physician-intellectuals in the course of the past two millennia. A better knowledge of these discussions and diverging solutions will contribute to a more sober assessment of the role of theory in traditional Chinese medicine, and of differences and parallels between European and Chinese medicine.