Archive for the ‘Chinese medicine’ Category

The Magic of Chinese Medicine

        Ancient China’s misty past has produced a wealth of stories with bearing on modern concerns. Take, for instance, the case of the curious goatherd who one day noticed that several of his billy goats were behaving in an unusually randy manner, mounting their mates repeatedly in remarkably brief spans of time. Aroused by their amorous behavior, perhaps even a bit envious of their prowess, the goatherd, in time-honored scientific tradition, kept careful watch on his horny herd for a few weeks. He soon detected a pattern. Whenever a billy goat ate from a particular patch of weeds, its promiscuous proclivities peaked. Before long Chinese herbalists had determined what goats had long known: that a plant of the aceranthus sagittatum family was one of the most potent male aphrodisiacs in their catalogue of confections. So they called the herb yin-yang-huo— “horny goat weed.”

The World’s Oldest M.D.s

        Like the martial arts, China’s medical arts have come a long way from prehistoric fable to the 20th-century fact. The goat story is trite but true. Many of China’s most efficacious herbal remedies were gradually discovered in precisely that manner. If a dog nibbled on certain weeds that induced vomiting, the curious Chinese experimented with the emetic properties of those weeds. Thousands of years of such observation and experimentation have provided Chinese medicine with the world’s most comprehensive pharmacopoeia of herbal remedies. From the open-faced fronts of garishly lit emporiums in Taipei to dim, closet-sized shops in the back alleys of small Taiwan towns, herbal doctors and dealers do a brisk business providing ancient remedies to contemporary customers.

        Historians have traced the beginnings of herbal medicine to Shen Nung (神農), the legendary emperor known as the “Divine Farmer” because he taught his vassals agricultural techniques around 3,500 B.C. “Shen Nung tasted the myriad herbs, and so the art of medicine was born,” proclaimed that great Han historian Ssu Ma-chien (司馬遷).

        References to various diseases and their herbal remedies first appeared on Shang Dynasty oracle bones (商朝甲骨文), circa 1,500 B.C., that were unearthed this century in China. Their discovery proved that medicine was a formal branch of study in China as long as 3,500 years ago. Books on medicine were among the few tomes spared from destruction during the infamous “Fires of Chin” (秦始皇焚書) of 220 B.C.

        The first volume that summarized and categorized the cumulative knowledge of disease and herbal cures in China appeared during the early part of the Han Dynasty in the 2nd century B.C. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (黃帝內經) contained the world’s first scientific classification of medicinal plants and is still in use by Chinese physicians and scholars today.

        The quintessential herbal doctor Sun Ssu-mo (孫思邈)appeared on the scene 800 years later during the Tang Dynasty. He established a pattern of practice still followed by Chinese physicians today. “When people come in for treatment, one does not inquire about their station in life or their wealth. Rich and poor, old and young, high and low are all alike in the clinic,” Sun wrote.

        Three emperors, all of whom he outlived, invited Sun to be their personal physician. He declined, preferring to pursue his clinical practice among the common people. Previously only the high and mighty had access to professional medical care, but Dr. Sun applied the Confucian virtue of ren (仁), “benevolence,” to his trade. He established the great tradition of ren-hsin, ren-shu (仁心仁術)–benevolent heart, benevolent art—that has guided Chinese physicians ever since.

        Sun Ssu-mo was also medical history’s first dietary therapist. In his famous study Precious Recipes (千金方), he wrote: A truly good physician first finds out the cause of the illness, and having found that, he first tries to cure it by food. Only when food fails does he prescribe medication.

        In fact, Dr. Sun diagnosed the vitamin-deficiency disease beriberi 1,000 years before it was identified by European doctors in 1642. Sun prescribed a strict dietary remedy that sounds remarkably modern: calf and lamb liver which are rich in vitamins A and B, wheat germ, almonds, wild pepper and other vitamin-packed edibles.

        Another milestone in the history of Chinese herbal medicine was the publication of Ben Tsao Gang Mu (本草綱目) in the 16th century. Known to the West as Treasures of Chinese Medicine, this authoritative pharmacopeia was compiled over a 27-year period of intensive research and study by the physician Li Shin-chen (李時珍). He scientifically classified and analyzed 1,892 entries including drugs derived from plants, animals and minerals. The book became popular in Western medical circles during the 18th and 19th centuries and was used by Charles Darwin in the development of his famous system for classifying nature’s species. The Ben Tsao Gang Mu remains the single most important reference tool for Chinese herbalists today.


Chinese medicine: 2. East vs. West

Posted: 2014 年 03 月 26 日 in Chinese medicine

East Versus West

        The theory and practice of traditional Chinese medicine takes an approach to disease and therapy that is diametrically different from Western ways. The Chinese prefer preventive techniques; the West concentrates on quick cures. In Chinese countries, medicine is considered an integral part of a comprehensive system of health and longevity called yang-sheng (養生), which means “to nurture life.” The system includes proper diet, regular exercise, regulated sex and deep breathing, as well as medicinal therapies. Unlike Western medicine, which has become increasingly fragmented into highly specialized branches, Chinese medicine remains syncretic. The various combinations of therapies from different fields in yang-sheng must be mastered by every Chinese physician.

        In fact, prior to the 20th century, most Chinese families retained family doctors much as modern corporations retain lawyers. The doctor was paid a set monthly fee and made regular rounds to dispense herbal remedies and medical advice specifically tailored to the individual needs of each family member. When a member of the family fell seriously ill, the doctor was held fully responsible for failing to foresee and prevent the problem. Payments were stopped. Only when he cured the patient at his own expense did his normal fee resume. The system stressed the importance of preventive care. It also served as a powerful deterrent to malpractice because doctors profited by keeping their patients healthy and happy rather than sick and dependent.

        Modern families in Taiwan and in other Chinese communities can no longer afford to keep a physician on the payroll, but the precept of prevention prevails. The Chinese trace and treat root causes of weakness and disease rather than their superficial symptoms. The physician draws a medical picture that encompasses everything from the weather and season to a patient’s dietary and sexual habits. And true causes are often found far from the symptoms. For instance, Chinese medicine traditionally traces eye problems to various liver disorders. Such symptomatic connections are rarely established in the West, where the eyes and liver are treated by two specialists separated by chasms of medical and opthomalogical training.

        The Chinese method of probing everywhere for possible causes of disease sometimes raises Western eyebrows. One American women introduced to a Taipei doctor returned from his clinic rather flustered. “He asked me such embarrassing questions!” she said. Everything from diet to elimination and sexual habits is important for the Chinese physician’s diagnosis.

        The theoretical foundations of Chinese medical arts, like those of the martial arts, are rooted in the cosmic theories of yin and yang, the Five Elements (五行: metal, wood, water, fire, earth), and the concept of chi(氣), “vital energy.” Essentially, Chinese doctors manipulate a patient’s internal balance of vital energies by using herbs, acupuncture and other methods to “clear energy stagnation, suppress energy excess, tonify energy deficiency, warm up cold energy, cool down hot energy,” and so forth. By reestablishing the optimum internal balance of vital energies and restoring harmony among the body’s vital organs, a physician can keep his patient healthy.

        Traditional Chinese therapy takes many forms. Some are popular in the West, others confined to Chinese society.

Scorpion Tails & Magic Needles

        Herbal therapy encompasses more than 2,000 organic medicines listed in the Chinese pharmacopeia, but only about 100 are commonly used to treat people. The rest are reserved for only the rarest conditions. Many common ingredients of the herbal pharmacy are standard ingredients of Western kitchens: cinnamon, ginger, licorice, rhubarb, nutmeg, orange peel and other spices and condiments. Herbal prescriptions routinely contain at least a half-dozen ingredients, some added simply to counteract the side-effects of more potent additives.

        The old adage “fight poison with poison” (以毒攻毒) originated in this branch of Chinese medicine. Some of man’s most virulent ailments are fought with such potent toxins as jimsonweed (Datura stramonium曼陀羅), centipedes, scorpion tails, and mercury. Herbal prescriptions come in a variety of forms. There are pills formed by blending finely powdered herbs with honey, brews made by boiling and reducing ingredients in water, powders dissolved in juice or water, pastes for external plasters, medicinal wines distilled from herbs steeped in strong spirits for a year or flour and water, and refined concentrates extracted from raw and dried herbs using modern technology.

        Acupuncture, probably the most widely used and publicized of Chinese therapies in the West, dates back to the battlefields of ancient China. Soldiers shot by arrows reported that their wounds often eliminated chronic ailments in other parts of their bodies. Physicians refined the technique over the centuries using “needles” fashioned from stone, jade, iron, and gold. Today’s practitioners of acupuncture stick very thin steel needles into “vital points” (穴道) along the body’s “vital energy” network. More than 800 such points have been identified, but only about 50 major spots are used in common practice.

        The insertion of a needle in each point produces a specific therapeutic effect on a specific organ, gland, nerve, or other body part. The points are connected to the internal organs and glands by energy channels called “meridians.” (經脈) While many of the secrets of acupuncture still mystify physicians in the West today, they acknowledge that it can be effective in treating certain ailments.

        Acupuncture has also proven to be effective as a local and general anesthetic. In recent years, patients have undergone painless appendectomies, major operations and even open-heart surgery while remaining alert and wide awake under acupuncture anesthesia. Acupressure (點穴) utilizes the same points and principles as acupuncture, but is applied with deep finger pressure rather than needles.

        Massage, called tui-na (推拿Chinese for “push and rub”), is applied to joints, tendons, ligaments and nerve centers as well as to vital points and meridians. With regular application over a period of time, tui-na can be effective in relieving and gradually eliminating arthritis, rheumatism, sciatica, slipped discs, nerve paralysis, energy stagnation and related ailments.

        Skin-scraping (刮痧) involves the use of a blunt spoon or coin, dipped in wine or salt water, and rubbed repeatedly across vital points on a patient’s skin, usually on the neck or back, until a red welt appears. In cases of heat stroke, colds, fever, colic and painful joints, the practice draws out what Chinese physicians call “heat energy” and releases it through the skin to eliminate the cause of the problem.

        Blood-letting (放血) requires a sharp, thick needle with a triangular point that is used to prick open the skin at a vital point related the diseased organ. The release of blood induces “evil chi” and heat energy to travel along the meridians and escape through the open point.

        Suction cups (拔罐) made from bamboo or glass are briefly flamed with a burning wad of alcohol-soaked cotton to create a vacuum, then pressed over a vital point, usually along the spine. They stick tightly to the flesh by suction. Skin and flesh balloon into the cup, drawing out evil energies by pressure. The method has been found very effective in the treatment of arthritis, rheumatism, bruises, abscesses, and any ailments related to excessive exposure to wind or dampness.

        Moxibustion (艾灸)is the term for a treatment in which a burning stick of moxa, made from wormwood and resembling a thick cigar, is held directly over the skin at particular vital points. The herbal energy radiates from the glowing tip into the vital point and transmits therapeutic benefits along the meridian network to the diseased organ.

        As bizarre as blood-letting, moxibustion and other Chinese medical treatments may sound, all are still utilized with phenomenal success in Taiwan. For many common ailments, the Chinese approach appears to be superior to Western methods. It eliminates the need for strong chemical drugs, drastic surgery, radiation and other potentially dangerous methods used in the West and puts faith in natural, organic curatives. However, Chinese medicine does not dispute the superiority of Western medicine in the treatment of acute traumatic ailments, injuries and emergency cases.

Chinese medicine: 4. New medicine

Posted: 2014 年 03 月 26 日 in Chinese medicine

New Medicine

     In fact, physicians in the Far East now blend Chinese theories and Western technology, Chinese therapy and Western diagnosis. Their combination has formed a comprehensive system of medical care called the “New Medicine.” Eastern physicians use x-rays, blood and urine analysis, electrocardiograms, biochemical labs and other technology to improve their diagnostic methods, while at the same time relying on ancient, time-tested Chinese methods of treatment for common ills.

     For the traveler who has long suffered from nagging backache, persistent rheumatism, chronic fatigue, throbbing shoulder, “trick” knee, sluggish digestion or other problems, a visit to the right physician during a trip to Taiwan may hold unexpected benefits. Bona fide stories of satisfied customers are common.

     In one instance, a Lebanese tycoon visiting Taipei on business was incapacitated by a recurring ailment in his lower spine. Unable to walk, he had to conduct his business from a suite at the Taipei Hilton. A sympathetic Chinese associate enlisted the services of a doctor who specialized in treating spinal injuries. Treated with a combinationof tui-na massage, external herbal poultices and internal herbal brews, the Lebanese businessman recovered and was back on his feet in two days.

     A year later, the condition struck the tycoon again. He called Taipei long-distance and begged the doctor to fly immediately to Beirut, but the physician declined in deference to his obligations to his daily local patients. Undaunted by the refusal, the Lebanese man flew back to Taipei for further therapy. After several long-distance medical visits, his chronic debility was entirely eliminated.

    In another case personally witnessed by the author, two petite Chinese women half-carried, half-dragged an elderly New York matron into the clinic of Dr. Tom Huang in Taipei. She was in tears and excruciating pain, but balked at approaching the doctor’s couch as if being dragged to sacrificial slaughter on the altar of a tribal witch doctor. She gasped that she suffered from a slipped disc that had plagued her for more than 20 years. “No problem,” said Dr. Huang as he rolled up his sleeves, turned the woman over on her stomach and loosened her skirt. With three masterly probes he located the slipped disc, then applied tui-na massage for a half-hour, gently but firmly pushing and rubbing the exposed ligament back between the discs. Then he applied a powerful herbal poultice and asked her to return the following day.

    By the end of her second treatment, the woman was a convert to Chinese medicine. She actually embraced Dr. Huang and cried: “It’s a miracle! For 20 years my doctors back home have given me nothing but pain pills and told me to stay in bed, but you make me feel like a new person in only two days. I can actually walk straight again!”