Have you ever tried Chinese medicine? If you subscribe to the “the worse it tastes, the more good it does you” view of medicine, you’d expect miracles from some of the foul-smelling soups that get served up by Chinese doctors. Still, given that Hong Kong has the second longest life-expectancy in the world, it must be doing something right!
Even if you never visit a Chinese doctor, your stay in Hong Kong will still feel the influence of the Chinese medicine system. Your first encounter is likely to be when you notice the distinctive appearance of a medicine shop, or the smell from a herbal tea stall.
The medicine shops typically have a glass counter, with rows of little drawers on the wall behind to hold all the various plant and animal ingredients that go into Chinese medicine. If you pass by when a customer is in the shop, you’ll see the staff weighing out quantities of different ingredients onto a sheet of paper. These will be taken home and boiled for several hours until the water has reduced down to a concentrated infusion – if you live in a tower block in Hong Kong you’ve probably already had days when you can smell the neighbours’ medicine brewing.
The herbal tea shops have their big metal urns brewing popular recipes – kind of a fast-food variety of the medicines described above. Commonly served teas will include ‘yah-sei mei’ (24-flavour tea) and ‘gum mo cha’ (influenza tea). They are very bitter to my taste, but MrsB tells me it’s not uncommon to find people that like their taste.
The 24-flavour tea is a common choice if you feel you’ve got too much ‘yeet hay’. Now the literal translation is ‘hot air’, but rather than being a cure for our rambling prose, it refers to the Chinese medical ‘hot’, which is one of the main ways of describing a person’s state of health. You may also be described as being too cold, wet, or dry, each of which require their own type of medical attention. But too much yeet hay seems to be the most common imbalance, blamed for the appearance of common problems such as pimples and mouth ulcers. If you’ve got too much heat, the obvious answer is to find something cool. Despite the fact they are served hot, the teas mentioned above are considered ‘cool’ from a medicinal viewpoint, and are drunk to get you back in balance.
These cooling teas are known as ‘leung cha’, (literally ‘cool tea’). Other cooling drinks include Chrysanthemum tea and ‘suen mooi tong’ (sour plum soup – usually served chilled). You might have tried them already, especially if you’ve eaten a Korean barbecue, or Chinese hotpot meal. Since fried and greasy food is considered a prime source of yeet hay, something cooling is served at the end of the meal to set things back in balance. One bit of good news is that beer is also considered a ‘cooling’ drink, and is even called ‘gweilo leung cha’. So if you’re eating out and thinking whether you can get away with ordering another beer, impress your friends by muttering something about too much yeet hay, and being under doctor’s orders to stay cool.
When you’ve been here longer, it might strike you as odd how these medical terms are used in such a wide variety of circumstances: from doctors’ medicine, through self-medication with herbal tea, to mealtimes, and even to drinking beer? This marks a big difference between the Western and Chinese approaches. We tend to think of Western medicine only when we are ill, and then concentrate on fixing the one thing that is ‘wrong’. The Chinese approach is broader, not only considering the whole patient, but also considering the things that affect the patient, including food, drinks, and even the weather.
Probably as a result of this, Chinese medicine has gained a good reputation for tackling chronic illnesses, or illnesses where a patient feels ‘not right’, but can’t pinpoint a single problem. On the other hand, Western medicine seems better at providing quick relief to a given set of symptoms. A western friend who has asthma gave me a good example of this, when he told me how a colleague reacted to him using his inhaler. The colleague had tears in his eyes as he heard how easily the inhaler worked, and how it relieved the difficulty in breathing almost instantly. The colleague had also suffered from asthma for years, and had been visiting a Chinese doctor for some time. His asthma was slowly getting better, but he had nothing that could help him quickly reduce the suffocating feeling of a bad asthma attack.
How well does Chinese medicine tackle the chronic illness none of us can avoid – old age? Should we give Chinese medicine any credit for that long life expectancy we mentioned earlier? I haven’t seen any statistics, but informally I get the feeling that local seniors take more responsibility for their good health than people of the same age in the UK. If you visit a Hong Kong park in the morning (say 6am – 10am), and you’ll see groups of people dancing, doing exercises, or practicing Tai Chi. Or if you live near the hills, you’ll see retired people returning from their daily morning walk at about that time. MrsB also says that it’s usual practice for people to eat a much plainer diet as they get into their 50s and older, cutting down on meat especially. So yes, I’d say that the Chinese approach to health encourages a healthier old age.
Despite the potential benefits, it can still be difficult to take Chinese medicine seriously if you’ve been brought up on western medicine. Here’s part of a post from a western doctor in the US that I’d guess is a typical reaction:
But you know what? I don’t think I could stand take sitting for hours in a classroom with a straight face listening to someone talk about the flow of Qi (pronounced Chi). I'm sorry, but the way Chinese medicine explains itself is still too steeped in non-scientific silliness for me to completely embrace its teachings. Don't tell me my Qi is blocked - Talk to me in real biologic terms. It's not meridians, and it's not Yin and Yang. It's neurotransmitters and antibodies and cytokines and calcium channels and renal tubule function and LH and FSH and estrogen receptors. And if you dont know how it works, that's okay. I can handle that.
I have the same reaction, feeling that the talk of qi sounds a bit wacky. But do you need to know how it works, or just take the benefits when it does? I’ve tried to keep my skepticism on one side and try it, with varied results:
#1. Around 15 years ago I injured my shoulder. Shortly afterwards a distant friend recommended me to visit a Chinese doctor. They had me visit several times, gave me medicines to take, and performed Qi Gung to fix the problem. But the problem (the shoulder would dislocate easily) just kept on happening. Then around four years ago I visited a Western sports doctor. (I’m using ‘Chinese’ / ‘Western’ to describe the medical approach; both doctors were Chinese race). He determined that it was a mechanical problem, where the shoulder capsule was stretched and torn, and an operation would be needed to fix it. I had the operation and it’s been fine since.
#2. Mum is in her 70’s, and on an annual visit she complained of her frozen shoulder – a common complaint in women that age. We took her along to see an acupuncture doctor that several friends had visited and had good results from. He was upfront that he only treated a narrow range of problems, related to body pain. She had to visit several times a week over several weeks, but at the end of it she had most of her motion back and much less pain.
#3. When we were having problems getting pregnant, MrsB went along to see a Chinese doctor recommended by a friend as specializing in womens’ health. Shortly after a finishing a one-month course of medicine she was pregnant.
The successful visits came from having a strong personal recommendation (not a ‘friend of a friend told me’) from someone who has similar problems to us, and who is happy with the results. If you plan to try visiting a doctor it’s also wise to get an idea how long the treatment will last and the likely costs. Then reconfirm them when you meet the doctor. Otherwise if you just visit the Chinese doctor and ask if they can make you better, it can be like asking a barber if you need a haircut – the Chinese doctor always has the excuse that something is out of balance, giving an opening for less scrupulous doctors to need ‘just one more visit’.
So, back to the original question – have you ever tried Chinese medicine? If yes, how do you rate it?