Sunday, September 19

Chinese traditional medicine


GROWING up in Kuching as a boy, my first contact with medical treatment was of the herbal Chinese type. The services of Western medical science were expensive, and unaffordable in my youth, so Chinese medicine was the only medical care that we could have access to.

We never had enough money to see the handful of doctors in practice in Kuching, in those days. Of course, modern private medicine can also be hugely expensive today because of the burgeoning cost of healthcare, even though we now have many more doctors around us.

Now that I am grown up, and older, I suppose I have more faith in Western medicine. But I still retain a lingering love for Chinese medicine.

If you need some form of surgery, then it is clearly better that you consult a Western-trained doctor. But if you are plagued by one of many nameless, inexplicable and ‘un-diagnosable’ ailments, then it may be better that you consult a traditional Chinese physician.

Just recently, I went down to see a friend, who is also a traditional Chinese medical practitioner. He is not cheap, but his medicines are always gentle.

By now, we all know about the weaknesses of Chinese medicine. It is poorly documented and may not yield results as quickly as Western medicine. But many of us have found it really works, in a gentle fashion, and seldom carries negative side effects.

Chinese medicine is based on its own particular cosmology. There is the usual balance between yin and yang, the polar opposites that rule our lives, based on their interplay.

The principles of traditional Chinese healing work according to a unique method, and can be understood mostly by people from the East. This art of healing is so ancient that its practitioners must have learned a tremendous empirical body of knowledge, through many centuries of trial and error.

Chinese medicines are made up of herbs, fruit, leaves, roots, bark and animal parts, mostly indigenous to China. They each have their own properties, and any student of the healing art will take many years to study the principles of Chinese medicine.

One of the most obvious examples of a useful component of Chinese medicine is acupuncture. This form of treatment is not clearly understood, but has gained wide acceptance in Western countries. Acupuncture is often requested for pain relief by Western doctors, including under Britain’s National Health Service.

There are certain points in the body which can be used to promote proper bodily functions by using fine needles to stimulate these pressure points. Acupuncture doctors can bring about medical relief for even the most stubborn forms of pain and disease.

My old uncle back in China Street, in downtown Kuching, used to be a respected practitioner of Chinese medicine. The establishment even had a resident physician to write prescriptions in Chinese. The shop had no shortage of customers, because most local Chinese had faith in the principles and practice of traditional medicine.

I hear that traditional Chinese medicine is now becoming a major science in China. I am glad that thousands of years of accumulated knowledge, through the practice of medicine, has been preserved.

One great enduring advantage of Chinese medicine is its relatively low cost. Medicine has never been meant to be an expensive product for the Chinese people, making public health very affordable for many.

The greatest achievements of Western medicine lie in hygiene, public health, and surgery. Chinese medicine seldom uses surgery, except in very peculiar circumstances. Yet it works just as well as Western medicine, in many instances.

Very often, which type of medicine is chosen remains a matter of personal choice for the patient.

Among my favourite Chinese medicines are the various types of Chinese herbal teas. Most of the Chinese herbal teas are eye-poppingly bitter, and are therefore not well-liked by children. Nonetheless, as the old saying goes: “good medicine always tastes bitter”. That seems to be part of the philosophy of life for all Chinese people.

There are many legends surrounding Chinese medicine. According to the folk tales of old, there is a kind of Chinese ginseng which is very hard to find. That, according to old wise men, is because that particular ginseng root has legs and can run away from herbalists! It is therefore very rare and very expensive: even a few grams will cost you a fortune.

I suppose Chinese medicine is part of a grand Chinese tradition, handed down from generation to generation, according to their customs. My early years were spent thriving on Chinese medicine, because it was cheap and affordable.

Say what you will, even now in my old age, I am growing to rely more and more on Chinese medicine as well. A body of knowledge that lasts for thousands of years cannot be all that bad.

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