Set of books simplifies TCM with artworks

A three-volume bilingual set of books details the history and age-old practice of traditional Chinese medicine and its relevance in the modern age.
Set of books simplifies TCM with artworks
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

A TCM doctor feels the pulse of a French patient while asking him to show his tongue in this file picture.

A three-volume set of books on the ancient wisdom of traditional Chinese medicine was released last week in Shanghai as part of efforts to promote a broader understanding of an iconic part of national culture.

It comprises material from the “Ben Cao Gang Mu” (Compendium of Materia Medica) written by Li Shizhen in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644); the “Huang Di Nei Jing” (Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic), compiled during the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BC-AD 220); and the “Nan Jing” (Classic of Difficult Issues) from the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25).

The book set has been recommended to readers by the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies and the Shanghai Health and Family Planning Commission. The text is bilingual, with illustrations provided by Luo Xixian, a master in Chinese-style comic strips.

The history of traditional medicine goes back to early recorded times and is filled with fact and fable. There is the story about Shen Nong, a Chinese sovereign from the late Neolithic Age, who was said to have trekked among mountains with his tribe and sampled hundreds of herbs for medicinal purposes. 

While Western doctors built medical systems on science, traditional Chinese medicine practitioners used herbal medicine to adjust “imbalances” of the body that were considered sources of disease. Nowadays, traditional medicine has come popularly to refer to herbal remedies, massage and acupuncture.

The book set also describes diets considered health-giving in traditional medicine and methods of cultivating medicinal herbs. According to Fan Huimin, one of the set’s chief editors and a cardiologist at Shanghai East Hospital, traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine are not antitheses and can be complementary in therapy. 

“I have been a cardiologist for more than 20 years and often treat patients with heart disease,” Fan said. “At the very beginning we only used Western medicine in treatment, but we didn’t always get results. Some patients remained very weak, and using only Western medicine therapy could damage their body organs. So we introduced traditional medicine into the treatment and that seems to work much better than with Western medicine alone.”

An online platform has been established to inform the public about combining traditional and Western medical treatments. 

“Traditional treatment can also work well in pre-surgical and post-surgical phases for people with coronary heart disease,” Fan said. “During those periods, they usually feel weak and in low spirits, and many lose their appetites. Those problems can be relieved or eliminated by traditional medicine.”

He recalled the case of a patient in his 70s, who had suffered from heart disease for eight years. Due to the poor condition of his heart valves, the disease worsened and required surgery. The patient became very weak after surgery and was been confined to a wheelchair. He also suffered from insomnia.

However, after taking traditional medicine for two to three months, the patient gradually grew stronger and was finally able to walk with a wheelchair.

Customizing a therapy

“A long history of thousands of years proves that traditional medicine really works in treating diseases,” Fan said. “Traditional and Western medicine each have their own advantages. Western medicine takes effect quickly in treating an urgent disease and is good at targeting its effects in the body. Traditional medicine, on the other hand, can ‘customize’ a therapy to the individual, based on the herbs used. It works during longer periods, like recovery.”

In fact, elements of traditional medicine are prevalent in the daily lives of many Chinese. It’s there in cups of tea that are sipped and in meals prepared according to long-standing Chinese traditions, Fan noted. 

Fan said he and Luo, the book set’s illustrator, met by coincidence. Luo was an aficionado of traditional therapies, and the two men saw an opportunity to promote traditional medicine to a wider audience through the books.

Fan organized a team of traditional medicine professionals and translators. Much of the material they collected for the books contained technical language, so those involved in publication sought to simplify the books with simple language and illustrations.

Fan said traditional Chinese medicine needs innovation to adapt itself to contemporary society. He said he is pleased that the Belt and Road initiative means that traditional Chinese medicine is traveling into more countries. Growing numbers of traditional medicine clinics are popping up overseas, and more foreign students are coming to China to study the ancient therapies.

Yan Shiyun, a professor at the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, agreed with Fan that traditional medicine needs to stay in tune with the times, absorbing Western medicine and modern science where applicable. 

There are more than 130 countries with traditional medicine clinics, he noted, and more than 70 countries with laws established for its use.

People who don’t understand traditional medicine often wonder whether it is safe, Yan said. Most traditional Chinese medicinal herbs are mild, and only very few have obvious side effects, he added.

Many people who have been treated are testimony to its healing powers.

Li Fu, 78, suffered from thyroid cancer in 2014 and was treated with traditional herbal concoctions after surgery. 

“After the surgery, I was weak and woke up sweating at night,” he said. “Along with Western medicine pills, I also had some traditional Chinese medicine. I think that lifted my spirits and made the sweating disappear.”

Fang Yumin, 26, said her grandfather suffered from double vision. He received traditional medical therapy, and the disease was cured.

However, not everyone is convinced of the power of traditional medicine. Wang Jiayi, 26, said he believes Western medicine is a safer choice for treating disease. It’s hard, he explained, to discern which herb in a mixture of herbal medicine is really effective in treating a given malady. Since soil and environment can affect herb growth, he wonders just how similar today’s medicinal herbs are to those of yesteryear. Pollution, like heavy metals, can affect any plant, he added.

Set of books simplifies TCM with artworks

The three-volume set of books on the ancient wisdom of traditional Chinese medicine

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