Ancient Chinese potions still have plenty of believers

Based on the idea that maintaining good health involves a holistic approach that balances various forms of energy in the body, traditional Chinese medicine is believed to date back more than 3,000 years. But now it faces threats.

At a clinic in Beijing, staff members measure ingredients for traditional Chinese medicine mixtures. Daniel Bardsley / The National
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BEIJING // The large glass jars in a side room of the Rui Cao Min Kang pharmacy in Beijing contain a rich assortment of exotics from the animal and vegetable kingdoms.

There are delicate rose petals, sweet-smelling pieces of ginger, countless different herbs, long yellow dried fish and perhaps most striking, dried seahorses.

"These are for men, to make them stronger," said Liu Lianxiang, 58, who works at the pharmacy. She explained that the seahorses are ground up and taken with rice wine, or purified white wine, for at least two months.

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), seahorses are supposed to help with everything from circulatory problems to impotence, although their widespread use has raised concerns that some species could become endangered. Indeed, TCM has already come under pressure from countries fighting the illegal trade in parts from endangered animals, such as tigers and bears. A range of animal parts are used in ancient cures.

Within China, TCM is also facing threats, according to recently published comments from members of the advisory body of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Huang Jiefu, an advisory body member who is also a vice minister of health, said some TCM hospitals, which traditionally sold herbal and animal-based medicines as well as offering treatments such as massage and acupuncture, were becoming "unlike themselves" by offering treatments from conventional medicine. Fixed tariffs for TCM procedures are said to be forcing clinics to offer conventional treatments that generate more revenue.

"Some of them offer CAT scans, and some even apply to be authorised to conduct human organ transplants. How much can TCM help in an organ transplant?" Mr Huang said.

Another CPPCC member, Wang Guoqiang, told local media that with acupuncture costing as little as 4 yuan (Dh2.24) and massage only 20 yuan, the labour was "disproportionate" to the price.

Based on the idea that maintaining good health involves a holistic approach that balances various forms of energy in the body, TCM is believed to date back more than 3,000 years. It is still commonly practised in China and other Chinese-influenced societies, including Japan, Korea and parts of South East Asia, but is considered alternative medicine in many western countries.

In stark contrast to a modern medical centre, the Zi Jing Cheng clinic in central Beijing has stuffed animals in the window, consulting rooms made from screens and doors, and hundreds of wooden drawers from which staff select ingredients. The clinic is busy, with most patients looking to alleviate chronic conditions.

Although their efficacy is often questioned, TCM treatments have the advantage, insisted Wang Zuomin, the clinic manager, of not producing side effects.

He said they could even be of value in helping patients recover from serious conditions, such as cancer.

"Most cancer patients, before an operation and during an operation, they have western treatment," Mr Wang said.

"After that, to help them recover, they have Chinese medicine."

Even in this very traditional clinic, conventional drugs are now prescribed alongside TCM treatments. Many people prefer to take these conventional medicines, according to Zhao Guangyao, a practitioner in the clinic.

"If someone wants to be treated quickly, he or she may choose western medicine. It's very convenient and it acts more quickly," he said.

It is not necessarily a bad thing that TCM clinics are offering more treatments from modern medicine, according to You Weibin, a Shanghai-based qualified TCM practitioner who has worked in China and Canada.

It could, he said, help traditional methods "make a breakthrough" in terms of developing a more rigorous theoretical basis. He conceded that currently the knowledge that underpins TCM "needs much more refinement" and is often inconsistent with, or untestable under, the principles of scientific medicine.

A new price structure for TCM in Beijing may go some way towards alleviating the financial difficulties said to have forced some clinics to offer conventional treatments.

Following the concerns raised by the advisory body, the Municipal Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which regulates the sector in Beijing, announced that, in June, it would publish a revised price structure allowing clinics to charge more for acupuncture and other TCM treatments.

But some concede the real challenge facing TCM may be more than merely financial. In a 21st century China that is much more open to outside influences than the country of a generation ago, TCM has to prove its relevance to young people.

"Young people are less interested in TCM," said Mr You. "Who wants to spend time on brewing herbs that are smelly and whose effects take time to see? That is the bottleneck for TCM's future development."

But many Chinese are enthusiastic about TCM and believe that, although sometimes lacking a rigorous scientific basis, it does not have the drawbacks of conventional medicine.

"Western medicine can be like a poison. Maybe you feel better straight away, but it hurts your health little by little," said Shu Ai, 39, a Beijing-based teacher. "Chinese medicine is not going to hurt your body or organs just to cure another disease. I saw a Chinese medicine doctor and she gave me something [for a bad cold] and after that it disappeared and never happened again. It's magical."

Sui Wenbo, 23, a student, said the holistic approach of TCM appealed to many Chinese people, many of whom "don't have a scientific tradition". "Sometimes also it just works better than western medicine," he added.

Mr Wang from the Beijing clinic thinks TCM will remain popular.

"Every young Chinese person knows some of the Chinese treatments and Chinese medicine," he said. "As the younger generation get older, they might prefer to use the Chinese treatments. They know the Chinese treatment is much better than western treatments, although it is a little bit slow."