Traditional Eastern Medicine: Can over a billion Chinese people be wrong?

Entrance to doctors' offices and a pharmacy in Hangzhou

Chinese allspice in bloom - Allspice contains quercetin, a nutrient that helps preventallergies and also provides relief from indigestion.

I’ve wanted to try traditional Chinese medicine. Just because I love the aroma emanating from the wooden cabinets filled with thousands of dried plants, seeds, and various nests, giant  mushrooms, grasses, ginseng roots, and other things we can’t identify, Barry and I have several times visited the dark, cool, old pharmacy in Hangzhou where the Communist party leaders go – including  at one time Mao.

We knew Chinese doctors were right across the street from the Hangzhou pharmacy on Hefeng Lu.  So when I got a rash that wasn’t going away, I wanted to see what herbal medicine could do.  Would I have a choice of using special packs made of grasses brought in from a high plateau in Mongolia or a ground up Tibetan fungus?  I figured that if traditional Chinese medicine didn’t work for me, I could just go see Dr. Martin as soon as I got back to Maui.

So how was our trip to Hangzhou and the Oriental traditional medicine doctor?  In a word—interesting.   We went first to the place we know off Hefeng Street.  However, when I tried to see a doctor, we got sent a five-minute walk away to a similar looking place of dark wood, herbal odors, and lots of people.  I was recommended a doctor: Yu Tu Gen, given a medical record booklet, and asked for 51 yuan (about $7.00).  An older guy ahead of us paid under 10 yuan, a young man about 20 yuan, so possibly there is a sliding scale, or we paid more because we aren’t citizens, or perhaps because my doctor seemed to have a   lot of experience, he may just charge more.  However, the 51 yuan is less than I would be charged for co-pay at home.  I turned my medical booklet and receipt for payment to a clerk, who put my booklet at the bottom of a pile of five others—not too bad for a walk-in situation.

Clerks in the doctors' waiting room

We were in a big, dark, cool room of perhaps 70 chairs; most were filled; the unique scent of numerous herbs wafted in through the window to the pharmacy.  We found a comfortable spot, started reading, and waited.

Waiting room

After two hours, I checked the desk: my booklet had about twenty medical record books on top and many more below.   I was told the wait would be about ½ hour more.  We waited three hours!!!  (Barry is soooo patient).

Finally, I was sent to see the doctor — along with six other patients and their family members who all crowded into the room with the doctor and his staff of three people: one took notes for him, one filled out medical record booklets, and one wrote up prescriptions and gave instructions to patients.

The doctor taking the pulse of another patient

At first, I waited outside the room while the doctor consulted with those he called first.  The doctor’s consultation table was by an open window on the ground floor.  Another window into the room faced the hallway.  People inside and outside the doctor’s office could easily see in.  Each patient first had his/her pulse read and then there was a big consultation, and the patient was sent over to the next stool to talk to the young man, an intern perhaps, writing up the prescription; this left the stool by the doctor open for the next patient.  I was the third one called.

The doctor was thin with  glasses.  He knew a little English (much more than my Chinese). I wondered if the doctor could tell I had a rash just by taking my pulse.  Barry said he hadn’t been sitting for three hours just to have the doctor try to guess my ailment.   However, in pinyin, Chinese alphabetic form, I had written out the details and what I treatment I had tried.   The young woman who took notes for the doctor asked me in English what was wrong.  And they wanted to see the rash, which was under my left breast.  I managed to limit the viewing to the doctor, the young woman taking notes—and to the prescription guy who ran around to have a look.  So even here in the doctor’s office, there is no such thing as privacy.  You can be sure that the others in the office were paying close attention.

So what did I have?  I knew it wasn’t eczema, shingles, or a heat rash.  The prescription guy said he didn’t know what to call it in English but that it was something that foreigners sometimes get.  The doctor and his team seemed to know what they were doing, so I got the doctor’s prescription filled for 138 yuan ($28).  I don’t think everyone can be charged so much (but considering I haven’t used insurance here, the price is very reasonable).

The pharmacy clerk charging me for my prescription

So am I applying some mysterious concoction made from minerals and fruit tree blossoms?   Or am I drinking a tea made from a huge mushroom grown in a cave where traveling pilgrims prayed during the last century?   Or do I need to cook a swallows’ nest soup to boost my immunity?   I hoped that no endangered species would be involved.

Bark peeled from a pine tree--probably to be used for a medicinal purpose

The intern explaining how to use my prescriptions

Nothing exotic was in my small green bag.  The intern told me to take the big green pills—four of them as well as two small pills—-three times a day.  The small pills are vitamin B, the big ones still a mystery.  I also have a topical ointment, a strong hydrocortisone cream.   Within 24 hours, the rash was clearing up.  And now a few days later, it is gone.  So although it seems I ended up with Western medicine (xiyi), what I was given worked.  Did the doctor give me Western medicine just because I’m a foreigner?  Would he have given the same prescription to a Chinese patient?   According to what I’ve read, now the Chinese seek Western medicine if they feel their condition is serious or if they want immediate results.  They seek a traditional medicine doctor for acupuncture or herbs if they feel their condition isn’t too serious or urgent.

The Encyclopedia of the Traditional Chinese Pharmacopeois, published in 1977, has 2,700 pages listing 5,767 substances (Insights Guide China 79), so this is a complex practice. We’ve met several young college students now studying traditional Chinese medicine.  Here in China as well as for a growing following in the West, many people consider traditional Chinese medicine a useful method to “restore harmony to the body” (77).

According to Insights Guides China, “Traditional Chinese medicine, as practiced today and in past centuries, is based upon an array of theories and practices from both foreign and native sources.  It was during the Zhou period (11th century—221 BC) that many of these lasting theories first emerged.  This stage of Chinese history, marked by fighting and misery, lasted several centuries. Considering the turmoil of the period, it is hardly surprising that people began to search for a solution to the endless strife.  Innumerable thinkers, philosophers and social reformers with as many diverse ideas emerged, forming a collection of thought often referred to as the “hundred schools”.  It was during this time that many ideas took root that were to influence all aspects of life in China for the next 2,000 years—including medicine.”

First evidence of what would become traditional Chinese medicine originated 5,000 years ago when Shennong, a farmer, discovered medicinal herbs.  His Shennong Bencaojing is the earliest known text; it describes the medicinal effects of 365 herbs.  Another important early medicinal text, Huangdi Neijing, (The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Interior Medicine), was written sometime between the 2nd century BC and 8th century AD.  These works laid the foundation for traditional healing in China.  Eastern medicine examines illnesses from the point of view of holism, the concept that parts of the body “form an integral, connected and inseparable whole . . . Whereas Western medicine tends to treat symptoms in a direct fashion, traditional Chinese medicine examines illnesses in the context of a whole” (78).

I still don’t know what I had, what caused it,  or really what I took, but the treatment I got from the Chinese doctor worked for my “foreigner’s rash.”  I can understand why many seek medical treatment here at the doctor’s offices and pharmacy in Hangzhou.   I do plan, however, to stay completely healthy at least until I can speak to a doctor in a language we both can understand.

Blossoms on a Buddhist monastery bush. They too may be used medicinally.

Stay healthy–

Zài Jiàn &  Aloha, Renée

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About reneeriley

Our blog was begun as a way to share our experiences in China. From August 2010 to July 2011, my husband, Barry Kristel, and I were at our University of Hawaii Maui College sister school, Zhejiang Agriculture and Forestry University in Lin'an, China, a city considered rural because it has only 500,000 people! We had a wonderful time. Then in February 2012, we returned to teach this time at our other sister school, Shanghai Normal University, in a city of over 21 million people. We've made many discoveries. Did you know that now Chinese girls, at least the ones who go to university, for the most part feel they are luckier than the Chinese boys? Did you know that Shanghai saved over 20,000 European Jews during WWII? Do you know how Chinese university students would deal with problems that come up in Dear Abby letters? What's it like to be on the Great Wall of China? Do you know how many Chinese girls had their feet bound and why? And we have recipes from many of the places we've visited. Among others, you can find instructions on how to fry cicadas from one of my ZAFU students and how to make chocolate-Kahlua waffles from my brother Mike in Gainesville. You can also look back to our earliest entry to see what we experienced in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2006 during the mainly peaceful six months of protest until the Mexican government sent in the troops. Between our stays in China, Barry and I have been on the Mainland U.S. visiting family, friends and Servas hosts as we traveled home to Maui. We share those experiences too. Welcome to our blog! Aloha and Zài Jiàn, Renée and Barry

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