By Yanzie Chow
“How would your family treat a sore throat?”
This question, when I first heard it, made me chuckle. I remembered back to when my elderly Chinese grandmother, upon hearing the words “sickness,” would bustle into the kitchen and immediately begin concocting a cure-all brew. I’ve spotted bundles of tweed-like herbs, yellowish roots, even dried grasshoppers on the counter, waiting to be submerged into the mixture. For the sore throat in particular, she would simply hand me a jar of pei pa koa – loquat syrup, an extremely bitter and minty liquid with the consistency of tar. I wouldn’t be able to speak for an hour after swallowing a spoonful, but I would emerge as vocal as ever.
I wonder how my grandmother would respond to China’s rapid medical advancement, its movement towards Westernized practices, and the effects on the ancient remedies that she entrusts her health and vitality to. The New York Times ran a fascinating article titled “Nobel Renews Debate on Chinese Medicine,” discussing the aftermath of Tu Youyou’s receiving China’s first Nobel Prize in a scientific discipline for extracting the malaria fighting compound Artemisinin from the plant Artemisia annua.
In 1969, Dr. Tu was recruited by Chairman Mao to “523,” a medical research project designated for the search for a natural malaria treatment that was killing North Vietnamese troops in southwest China. She and her team stumbled upon the usage of qinghao, sweet wormwood to treat malaria while studying the Manual of Clinical Practice and Emergency Remedies by Ge Hong of the East Jin Dynasty. She tested the effects of this treatment on humans successfully, and it soon became a major advantage in campaigns battling malaria in Asia and Africa.
The article, however, also touches on a conflict surrounding the implications of the evolving practice of Chinese traditional medicine. Some traditional physicians (associated with the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences) argue that artemisia, which has been used for centuries to fight malaria and other fevers, must be acknowledged through the lens of cultural heritage. More contemporary scientists (associated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences), on the other hand, argue that future medical development must focus more on researching the value of herbs with a modern scientific approach. These debates reflect an emerging division among Chinese physicians and scientists over the desire to be recognized as major contenders in the medical field today, juxtaposed with a great pride in medical achievements of the past.
Ongoing considerations about the path that China should take remain, especially as a whopping 1.1 million Chinese health professionals are being trained in Western medicine, compared to 186,947 being trained as traditional doctors. What are the benefits of investing in the learning, teaching of traditional medicinal techniques and remedies, and incorporating them into practice? Would referring back to natural treatments be an effective way to take advantage of therapeutic knowledge that physicians years ago have already discovered? At the same time, would traditional medicine and remedies be able to ward off – prevent, treat, and protect against– devastating modern epidemics without 21st century interventions? Would patients of this generation trust treatment grounded in ancient medicinal practices rather than technological ones?
When reflecting on these questions, we must remember that medical innovation is a double-edged sword, both destructive and progressive for society. For example, China has been criticized for mishandling of antibiotics – from over-prescribing to patients to overusing antibiotics to treat livestock and fish – that has led to widespread microbial resistance, and there is much discussion about the need to return to building natural immunity and curatives, rather than reliance on chemical prevention. Perhaps moving forward, China and all nations, really, would be better off building a bridge between traditional and modern medicine, rather than glorifying one or the other.
Exclusive Interview: Did Tu’s Nobel Prize prove the credibility of Chinese Traditional Medicine?
Jarkowsky, Patrick. “Greetings, from the Post-antibiotic Era.” Global Health Governance. Young Voices Blog, 19 Jan. 2016. <http://blogs.shu.edu/ghg/2016/01/19/greetings-from- the-post-antibiotic-era/>.
Johnson, Ian. “Nobel Renews Debate on Chinese Medicine.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 Oct. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/11/world/asia/nobel- renews-debate-on-chinese-medicine.html>.
Phillips, Tom. “Tu Youyou: How Mao’s Challenge to Malaria Pioneer Led to Nobel Prize.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 05 Oct. 2015. <https://www.theguardian.com/