Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Taste of (Bitter) Medicine...Chinese Style

Luckily, I never had a client who fell ill and had to see a doctor or go to the hospital. That's quite amazing considering we are sometimes walking over 10 km a day in the hot sunny weather or eating all sorts of delicious street food.
Actually it could be quite interesting for you if you went to see a Chinese doctor. You don't have to be sick, maybe just want to get rid of a headache, or back pain or feel tired easily or have a skin rash or whatever.
A friend recently recommended to me a famous Chinese traditional medicine doctor Dr Cao whose skills have been passed down from generation to generation. We went along to see him at his clinic, which was in a residential apartment.  
There is a distinct feeling of entering a buddhist temple.


 Dr Cao also knows a thing or two about fengshui, with a stone water pond with fish, and lucky wooden carvings on the wall. 

He treats patients not for the direct symptoms of the disease but for the underlying causes. When you go in, he doesn't ask you what's wrong; instead he feels your pulse for some time, looks at your face and asks you to stick out your tongue, chats a little about your eating and sleeping habits and then he tells you his diagnosis of what's wrong with you. He writes out a prescription and you buy the herbs from a TCM store.

I don't understand how TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) works, but certainly believe in it, like most of my Chinese friends. It's all to do with energy flows and how different organ systems such as the heart, liver and spleen, which are linked to various elements of earth, fire and water, interact to give balance or imbalance of yin and yang. If you are ill, things are not in harmony and the systems are not balanced.
File:Yin yang.svg

By treating these imbalances and unblocking internal energy flows you will feel better and have less symptoms. Believe it? Well, who knows if he is correct because the medicine he prescribes, usually herbal in nature but could be animal (e.g. snake skin for skin diseases) sometimes, takes time to take effect. At least it has few side effects and has been tried and tested over thousands of years.

Western medicine is much stronger and is directed at relieving the immediate symptoms only, and not necessarily at getting to the root causes of the illness. Western medicine is also partly based on believing you have a good doctor and that the medicine he/she prescribes is doing you good too! 

Dr Cao supplements herbal medicine with acupuncture treatment, and this model of an ear shows the many many different pressure points that exist. It takes an experienced doctor to put the needle(s) in the right point for treating the right symptoms!
Here my friend can be seen relaxing on the doctor's couch, but look at his left wrist.

Yes that's right, he's got two needles inserted that stay in for 10 minutes or so. Not painful, just a strange feeling.

Now it's time to go to the medicine store. The most famous brand in Beijing is Tong Ren Tang, where you can be sure of quality and with no fake medicine. It was started in 1669 by a senior physician to the Qing dynasty Emperor Kangxi, and is now the world's largest manufacturer of TCM.

There are 13,000 different herbs that could be used. Each one of the hundreds of boxes that line a whole wall behind the counter contain a few different types of Chinese medicine, and one prescription may contain 10 to 20 different ones. 

The prescription is made up into different batches, one for each day, with one course of treatment usually lasting one or two weeks.
Traditional Chinese scales are used to weigh out each herb. There are seeds, grasses, dried bark, dried flowers, leaves, orange peel and all sorts of other bits and pieces that I didn't recognise in this prescription.
If you are lazy, you ask the shop to "boil" the herbs for you in water, which is then sealed in plastic sachets, giving enough bitter liquid to drink 2 or 3 times a day.

However, the proper way is to take the batches home and boil up one batch freshly in a special ceramic pot every day for best effect. There's a whole tradition of boiling the first lot of water for 20 minutes, pouring the liquid off, and then boiling another lot of water for 30 minutes, then mixing the two lots and drinking through the day as prescribed by the doctor.

Looks quite disgusting during cooking.....

...and doesn't taste too good either! You have to drink this not once but at least twice a day, and for at least 7 days. But there is a Chinese saying "good medicine tastes bitter" (liang yao ku kou).