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The Power of Traditional Medicines




I've always associated Chinese medicine with dried plants, exotic elements and endangered animal parts. I imagined it was like the home
remedies used as a boy. Things like hot toddies for colds, putting steak on a black eye, or rubbing a doc-leaf on a nettle sting. 
Some traditional practices, I have heard argued, like using urine for chilblains, have some merit. Other treatments once prescribed, like drinking sea water and tinctures of arsenic or mercury, are now considered more toxic than tonic.
 
Modern medicine isn't always consistent over time either. Advice, especially on diet, seems to regularly change as more research is collected. This general lack of certainty makes my preferred choice of treatment, if possible, to do nothing. Of course, there are always exceptions and there is also room for remedies that make me feel better, even if they have no proven curative effect; for example, the hair of the dog for a hangover, or a cup of strong tea for everything else.
 
But there are many people in the west that are turning to alternative medicines, if not for serious illness, at least for minor ailments and for preventive methods through changes in lifestyle and diet. Many involve practices that, while not traditional, have ideas that would be familiar to Chinese people today and considered not very alternative to western cultures of the past.
 
Power of plants and belief
 
Use of plants for medicinal purposes, or dietary supplements, date back thousands of years. They were used by the Egyptians, Greeks and Indians as well as the Chinese. But in China, the practice has been elevated to a much higher level compared with other cultures. There is a system of beliefs behind it that explains how the body works and how illness and treatments interact. The theories comprise of mysterious energies (qi) that flow through channels in the body, concepts of balance and opposites, of maintaining harmony. The principles are not unlike those underpinning eastern religious beliefs and this similarity provides a systemic quality that intuitively feels correct because it corresponds with the believer's worldview.
 
In contrast, the western religious belief held that disease is caused by sin. Christianity's emphasis was on the power of prayer, on penance, or exorcism of demons as cures. Those that claimed the power to heal were often persecuted, or feared, as witches. So, while plants were used in Europe medicinally, no dominant theory about how they worked developed. The belief was they treated the symptoms of the disease, but the underlying causes were spiritual.
 
Mystical energies and the power of the past
 
Recently there has been a growing distrust of science, a move away from chemicals and a preference for natural ingredients. This has led to an explosion of alternative approaches to health, some borrowed from other cultures, some repackaging old ideas and some just fads. The more resilient tend to have underlying belief systems that explain why they work. Many are based on concepts of supernatural energies which are channelled, or transferred, through touching, or through the use of charms such as magnets, ionised jewellery or crystals.
The mysterious energies involved are very important. When ingesting a plant, you can imagine it contains some active ingredient that causes a change inside the body. But without an invisible force it’s difficult to explain how the presence of a rock, the incantation of a spell or prayer, or the proximity of hands or charms to the body can cause any physical effect.
 
The ideas about energy were also believed by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians who thought that disease resulted from an imbalance of natural forces. Hippocrates called them the four temperaments and Humours. Similarly, Homeopathy, first proposed in the late 1700s, has the phenomenon of "miasms" which are used to explain illness. And like the Chinese qi, it is the disruptions of these "spirit-like powers" that need addressing.
 
That different cultures at different times have conceived that some mysterious energy is involved in illness leads many to conclude that these forces, despite their elusiveness, must exist. There is an inference, like the new age belief in ancient culture's intuitive knowledge, that they led lives that were harmonious with nature. Strangely, neither the antiquity of pre-Christian Saxon magic, nor its naturalness, has made leaches and bloodletting a more appealing cure for a hangover than an aspirin. However, the similarly unattractive practices in Chinese medicine such as acupuncture (zhen jiu), scraping (gua sha) and cupping (bá guàn) are becoming more well-known and used in the west.
 
Chinese fire power
 
But I hadn't heard of the even more bizarre practice of Huo Liao (fire treatment), until I came across some pictures on Wechat dramatically showing people being set alight. The technique, I was told, is an ancient practice similar to Moxibustion (jiu). Checking on line I discover that the later burns small quantities of dried Mugwort on the skin to produce small blisters and scars. The pictures I saw, looked far more spectacular and dangerous - the dried plants replaced with what appears to be petrol. The flames are more dramatic and I assume, the energy involved more powerful.
 
I met Doctors Wang and Luyu in a large, ground floor room of an apartment block where the fire treatment takes place. They asked me about aches and pains and I admitted to having a bit of a stiff neck. Huo Liao was promptly prescribed and wet towels were placed on my head. Bulldog clips were used to ensure my face was clear before alcohol was poured over the towels, then a cigarette lighter used to set it all alight. I couldn’t see what was happening, but my head gradually grew warmer and the reflection of flames flickered in the doctor's eyes.
 
The fire didn't hurt, but after the alcohol had burned off Dr Wang pressed the now scalding towels onto the scalp. I mentioned that it was painful on the top of my head and I could see that they attributed this to a large lump I've had there since childhood.
There were several more rounds of applying the fuel, burning it off and then pressing the boiling towels onto my skin. I kept quiet in case discomfort was a sign that more treatment was needed. Besides, even though my head was on fire I didn’t like to make a fuss. Dr Luyu said the colour and height of the flame gave clues about my health. "The flames," he informed me "were very high." It meant I was very unhealthy.
After 30 minutes the towels were removed and some sickly smelling oil was applied to my hair. I was swaddled in more towels and made to lie down in a quiet room for 45 minutes with the instructions not to have any cold drinks, or wash for 24 hours.
 
Negative Energy
When I left, I felt different. Call me negative, but I think it was the relief at being unscarred and still having my hair rather than a change in my flow of energy. My stiff neck was forgotten, maybe cured by the fire or the 45-minute rest. But if it hadn't been then I'm sure it would be because, as the doctor said, going once wasn't enough. Or it might have been because I disobeyed the doctor's orders by immediately downing a cold beer - for medicinal reasons of course.
 
By ChinaDaily
 

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