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Scalpel vs. herb in China

An attack on traditional medicine, which has protected status, inflames adherents and sparks a debate about its Western counterpart.

January 08, 2007|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

Xikou, China — THE fur is flying, not to mention the acupuncture needles, the firewort and the $15,000-a-pound bull gallstones. China's ancient healing arts, as integral to national identity as the Great Wall or steamed dumplings, have become embroiled in the country's struggle to balance tradition and modernity.

A relatively obscure professor at a regional university kicked off the controversy in October with an online petition calling for traditional medicine to be stripped from the Chinese Constitution. It has a protected status here that, at least in theory, guarantees it equal footing with its Western counterpart.

Professor Zhang Gongyao and fellow critics have blasted Chinese medicine as an often ineffective, even dangerous derivative of witchcraft that relies on untested concoctions and obscure ingredients to trick patients, then employs a host of excuses if the treatment doesn't work.

For adherents of the 3,000-year-old system, this borders on heresy. The Health Ministry labeled Zhang's ideas "ignorant of history," and traditionalists have called the skeptics traitors bent on "murdering" Chinese culture.

Ironically, the firestorm dovetails with a growing embrace of Chinese medicine abroad as an antidote to the perceived soulless, money-obsessed nature of Western healthcare.

On a trip to China in mid-December, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said the two countries planned to trade lessons on how to integrate Western and Chinese medicine.

"It's an area of interest for China and the U.S.," he said.

Many Australians, Europeans and Americans see the limitations of advanced science, said Rey Tiquia, an expert in Chinese traditional medicine based in Australia, even as more Chinese view their traditions as old-fashioned.

"For Chinese," he said, "it's still the lure of something new and shiny, like riding a car rather than a bicycle."

Since 1949, the number of traditional doctors trained in China has fallen by nearly half to 270,000, while the number of Western-trained doctors has jumped twentyfold to more than 1.7 million.

Criticism that traditional medicine is not scientific dates back centuries. But Zhang's prescriptive remedies -- including an end to national insurance coverage for traditional medicine, rigorous scientific standards and obligatory Western training for traditional doctors -- have hit a nerve at a time when traditional Chinese medicine is increasingly on the defensive.

At Beijing's prestigious Xiehe Hospital, cardiology, gynecology, internal medicine and other Western specialties are housed in a new six-story building filled with shiny equipment, well-maintained halls and renovated toilets. The traditional medicine department is relegated to eight consulting rooms and a therapeutic facility in an outer building with peeling green paint, water-stained walls and a foul smell emanating from a dimly lighted toilet.

Some blame skewed financial incentives and a government that is forgetting its roots.

"The Health Ministry is actually the Ministry of Western Health," said Lin Zhongpeng, a researcher with the Beijing Tianren Yiyi Traditional Medicine Institute. "It's also shocking that doctors get 15% kickbacks selling Western drugs."

TRADITIONAL remedies tend to be less expensive than Western ones. At the Tongrentang traditional pharmacy and clinic along Dashila alley in Beijing, a dozen people waited for football-sized bags of herbs for a few dollars each.

"Give me some deer sinew," said one customer, asking for a traditional cure for arthritis. "Large or small?" a clerk in a white coat asked, grabbing several from a tray.

But there are some notable, more expensive exceptions. In glass cases, beneath an ad touting an herbal tonic for avian flu, shelves brimmed with dried snakes, sea horses, ground-up pearls and deer horn powder, used for ailments such as rheumatism, paralysis, asthma, epilepsy, gastritis and acute infantile convulsions.

Nearby sat an ornate green box lined with red satin holding a shriveled deer penis and testicles ensemble for $63 -- nature's apparent answer to Viagra. "That's to improve male function," an employee explained helpfully.

Deer privates at nearly a month's average wage hardly top the price list.

"The most expensive would be bull gallstones," a clerk said, pointing at a yellowish shrink-wrapped object the size of a nickel, used for fevers and inflammation.

In an adjoining building, third-generation traditional doctor Guan Qingwei examined several patients, prescribing different herbal combinations for insomnia, high-blood pressure and rashes.

Unlike Western medicine, which focuses on the disease, traditional medicine takes a holistic approach, he said. Adherents of "ZangXiang," one of the discipline's fundamental tenets, believe the body gives external clues to the imbalance of internal organs, which can be rectified with herbs and acupuncture. This makes knowledge of anatomy unnecessary, he said.

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