Herbalist a master of precision

When it comes to medicinal herbs, Wu Hao, a traditional Chinese medicine pharmacist, is extremely meticulous.

When it comes to medicinal herbs, Wu Hao is meticulous. She carefully selects them from jars on a shelf, weighs them on a scale and wraps them in paper for customers.

Wu, 30, is a traditional Chinese medicine pharmacist at Shanghai Leiyunshang Pharmaceutical Co, working in the branch on Huashan Road, just opposite the Jing’an Temple.

The young pharmacist’s dedication to her job won her an award last year as one of Shanghai’s top workers.

Wu attended the Shanghai Pharmaceutical School because of her interest and belief in traditional Chinese medicine. “I once had a serious acne problem,” she says, “but it significantly eased after I started taking herbal broths.”

Even before her formal schooling, Wu was fascinated by a book at home spelling out the principles of traditional medicine.

“Compendium of Materia Medica,” better known as “Bencao Gangmu” in China, is the holy book of traditional medicine. It was written in the 16th century by physician, pharmacologist and herbalist Li Shizhen (1518-93), describing about 1,800 herbal remedies. Many are out of use today.

At school, Wu had to memorize over 1,000 kinds of medicinal herbs and, to this day, has to take the regular professional exams checking that she hasn’t forgotten the basics.

When her actual career began, Wu discovered that the learning process never really ends.

“There are vast differences in naming herbs in different parts of China, and sometimes a name can refer to different herbs,” Wu says.

Ti Gong

Wu Hao (second from right) shows young pharmacists at Leiyunshang to accurately hand-pick and weigh herbs.

Another headache for her are the handwritten, out-of-town prescriptions where it’s easy to mistake one herb for another. It takes an experienced pharmacist to get it right for customers every time.

“TCM doctors from different parts of China can have different herb choices for treating the same disease, so we have to be very careful in telling which is which,” Wu says.

When she started work, it could take her up to 50 minutes to select, weigh and wrap herbs for one prescription. She’s whittled that time down to 15 minutes or less for three portions of 10 herbs or more.

Weighing is the most ponderous procedure. Wu’s pharmacy requires that the weight can’t deviate more than 2 percent from the prescription.

According to the pharmacy, Wu is one of the workers receiving the fewest customer complaints. She is considered more efficient than some of her colleagues.

Some TCM hospitals offer packaged herbs that are industrially produced and very precise in weight, but many customers prefer to buy herbs that are hand-selected and weighed in a pharmacy.

“It’s hard to preserve packaged herbs because herbs are best kept dry and at temperatures from 5 to 9 degrees Celsius,” Wu explains, adding that packaged herbs may not always be the best quality or even genuine.

The best traditional Chinese medicine doctors tend to prescribe herbs by gram weight and not by package size.

Wu and her colleagues are trained to detect fake or low-quality herbs by smell, color and taste. Pharmacists are regularly tested on that skill, and Wu won a national trade competition award for her expertise.

“Customers often ask us to help them verify the authenticity of some herbs they bought elsewhere,” she says. “For example, some fake Chinese caterpillar fungi are made from flour, and fake bird’s nests are not rare, either.”

Ti Gong

Wu often work overtime during the busiest months of November and December, when Chinese herbal pastes (gaofang) are sought to sustain health during the winter.

After work every day, Wu has to scrub herself clean.

“The herbs we deal with have been soaked and washed over, but there are still a lot of ‘dusty hairs’ on them, and we get those in our skin,” she says.

Wu says about two or three foreigners, mostly from East Asia, Europe or the United States, come to the pharmacy every day.

The Chinese mainland is a favored destination to buy traditional medicinal herbs because herbs here are cheaper than those in Hong Kong or Taiwan. Herbs in Japan are usually sold as powder or pills, also making them more expensive.

Wu says traditional Chinese medicine is getting more popular, not only among older people who have long embraced the remedies, but also among young people troubled with insomnia, fatigue and other problems associated with stressful lives.

Herbal plants are also part of some Chinese cuisine. Wu’s pharmacy has customers who work for restaurants and come to purchase herbs as aromatic spices used in “secret-recipe dishes.”

“Some of them purchase the herbs they want from different pharmacies out of fear that their secrets may be revealed,” she says, “but others generously share their recipes with us.”

Wu and her colleagues often try them out at home, experimenting with inspirational combinations of spices for local delicacies such as marinated duck.

Special Reports