It seems like anything that moves in China is fair game for dinner. The range of living things incorporated into the diet, from land, water, and air, is so much wider than in the West. I’ve eaten dog, jellyfish and silkworms. They didn’t taste great, but they didn’t make me sick either. It is the claims of vitality and healthfulness accompanying some of these strange eating customs that appear fantastic.
For such an intelligent people, it is astonishing that the Chinese believe as many crazy and superstitious things as they do. Numerology is one thing, feng shui is another. But to believe that bull balls consumed in a soupy broth do naturally for an Asian man what Viagra does for men in the West, strikes me as preposterous.
The pharmacy you see above is in Guangzhou, Guangdong, and is about as ordinary as a pharmacy comes in China. There must be hundreds of thousands all over the country. But carrying aspirin for a headache, or an antacid for heartburn, is not really what they are all about. Instead, they are just as prepared to sell you a stiff, dried sea horse for incontinence, or ground deer antler powder for premature ejaculation.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a philosophy and moniker that too broadly covers a gamut of beliefs, applications, practices, and therapies, from ingestion of herbal compounds and animal parts, to treatment modalities like qi gong, massage, acupuncture, and cupping.
Some habits, such as tai chi, green tea drinking, and massage–practices deeply woven into the fabric of Chinese culture and daily life–are so benign on their face at promoting stress reduction, relaxation, and well-being (wellness), there should be no controversy as to their suitability.
It is the multitude of other concoctions and beliefs that defy credulity. And yet it is exactly some of these crazy therapies, such as drinking fresh turtle blood, that my Chinese friends swear by.
Is it possible that the western scientific model is inadequate to the task of sizing up the truth-claims of Traditional Chinese Medicine? Such truth-claims would include the existence of “qi,” an energy source that flows through our bodies and all of nature, unseen and unquantified. Unblocking its flow in our body is considered central to good health.
A philosopher of science writing in The Stone, a philosophy blog in the New York Times, wonders whether some of the foundational theories of TCM, such as qi energy, will ultimately be vindicated:
“Are they chasing an illusion that takes authority from tradition alone, or are we still only at the commencement stage of discovery? Qi energy looks unfalsifiable, but maybe the promissory note will soon be paid. After all, scientists theorized, hypothesized and assumed the reality of the gene (a unit of heredity) long before anyone actually observed one. And the Higgs boson was posited in the 1960s, but only confirmed in 2012. Will qi energy be confirmed as the causal underpinning for the often-reported correspondence between acupuncture and healing?”
A China market research outfit estimates that the TCM health market could grow 25 percent annually for the next three years. That can be explained, in part, by the lack of affordable health care in China. Much of TCM is cheap folk medicine.
Mainstream western medicine, with its reliance on high technology, intrusive tests, and drug administration, is very expensive and beyond reach of ordinary Chinese. Alternative medicine attracts many uninsured Americans for some of the same reasons and more. But TCM can be downright pernicious to those desperate for a cure.
I have a friend who took his brother to China for several weeks to see a TCM doctor and acupuncturist whose “speciality” was reversing stroke paralysis and helping patients regain movement. But a lot of money and time were spent with nothing to show for it, except an opportunity for the family to visit some of the sights of the Middle Kingdom.
TCM in China is a 35 billion dollar business annually. Could it go global? Active ingredients are many in TCM.
Barriers to entry in the West are due to the complexity of TCM compounds, unlike in mainstream Western medicine in which active ingredients are fewer and far more manageable to control.
But they have a chance. Investigational drugs in the pipeline have slowed recently in the West, and if Chinese-Western joint venture companies can clear trials to the satisfaction of the FDA, for example, we may be seeing some of TCM going mainstream.