Chinese medicine gets a 4,000-year makeover

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The Independent Online

Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine are upgrading the 4,000-year-old healing method to improve its image. They are trying to make it more palatable to a new generation who are accustomed to visiting spas and "wellness" clinics. Most young Chinese use western-style GPs as their first port of call when they are sick but still believe that swallowing tortoise shell, deer pizzle, centipede, scorpion or sea horse, or sticking needles into their skins can treat a wide range of illnesses, as can the vast array of herbal remedies. However, traditional Chinese medicine has an image problem – the potions taste awful and smell even worse.

Boutique owner Huang Zhaohe, for example, said she had great success using traditional Chinese medicine to help her lose weight, but admitted it was a struggle. "Once, when I saw what went into the medicine, I felt sick but now I am used to it," she said. "There are some strange things in Chinese medicine."

Zhang Xiaoting, a student from Shanghai, began using traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) when she was a teenager, to regulate her menstrual cycle and clear up her acne. She was pleased with the effects but found the concoction hard to swallow. "My mum boiled it at home in the evening," she said. "The bitter taste made it very difficult to drink but the acne went away and my skin cleared up."

TCM is still popular in China because evidence suggests the old remedies are effective. Many poor people in rural areas rely on it because they have no access to western-style healthcare. Yet even the wealthy, modern Chinese like to complement western treatments with a holistic approach.

The rising incomes of young urban professionals have seen spas pop up all over Beijing, many of them offering therapies inspired by TCM. These are said to have fewer side effects than western drugs.

Stroke patients are often given acupuncture as part of their treatment. Indeed, the practice of inserting needles under the skin has even become more common in GPs' surgeries. About 3,000 Chinese hospitals provide TCM and see 234 million patients each year. The industry, worth £64bn annually at the last count, is growing by 20 per cent a year.

The Modernised Chinese Medicine International Association, based in Hong Kong, advocates using TCM in granulated form. A patient simply whisks the granules into boiling water, rather than letting an array of foul-smelling herbs and questionable ingredients sit stewing on their cooker for hours. Scientists are using new technologies to standardise doses and are carrying out more rigorous clinical testing to assess why the remedies work.

TCM is derived from a number of philosophies including the Taoist theory of "yin and yang", which asserts that the processes of the human body are interrelated and in constant interaction with the environment. Signs of disharmony help a TCM practitioner to understand, treat and prevent illness and disease.

Tortoise shell, for example, is said to cure a "yin" deficiency by reinforcing body fluids and nourishing the blood, while earthworm and centipede help to reduce swellings. Scorpion is used to deal with migraine and rheumatism. However, the use of ingredients from endangered species has harmed TCM's image . Another popular cure calls for a dose of bear bile drained from a painful tap in a bear's spleen. Some TCM practitioners are now advocating the use of alternatives, such as artificial substitutes for things like tiger paw.

A visit to a traditional Chinese pharmacy is still quite an experience. Walls are lined with hundreds of wooden boxes holding the herbs and medicines, boiled or dried. White-coated pharmacists weigh ingredients on scales, combine them into pungent preparations and scoop them into paper cones. While buying a sachet of artificial tiger paw might be a less romantic option, it is certainly a more sustainable one.