28 August 2008

Medieval practices

One sight that is hard to adjust to in China is all the visibly bruised Chinese people on display. Bruising is the correct term but it in fact look like a series of enormous hickeys, some about the size of table coasters all over a person's back, legs and wherever the skins allows. The normally prudish Chinese would quickly cover the marks if they had been planted there by an eager kisser doing a Hoover imitation, but one learns the wearer of such splotches actually paid a professional to apply them.

There is a lot of interest now in western countries to better understand what is loosely referred to as Chinese medicine. Schools of traditional medicine are expanding to allow westerners to study firsthand and to earn valuable certficates. In this endeavor I do hope that calmer heads prevail. There can be some benefit in studying placebos and faith healing practices, which frankly is mostly what Chinese medicine amounts to. If feeling good is the main purpose of medicine, then indeed, there is much that can be gained from the practice of traditional Chinese medicine.
An Australian colleague told me about his Chinese wife's encounter with a Shandong doctor practicing 'traditional' medicine. The doctor held her wrist as taking her pulse. After counting and sensing the heartbeat and looking studious for a few minutes, he declared that she was in fact pregnant and she was going to have a boy. Effective? The patient happily agreed with the doctor so, yes, Chinese medicine does work effectively on at least one level.
There are lessons to be learned from even a very flawed philosophy that in most ways resembles medieval medicine. As soon as the elusive black humor is found, ours can be balanced and we just might all be better off for it. There are some herbs and plants that make up the bulk of Chinese medicine and the active ingredients do undoubtedly have therapeutic value. Some are in wide use today and others are being studied more still. The problem with common plants and herbs is, however, that most anybody in China will tell you that the strongest medicine is the most expensive and the most difficult to obtain. Ginseng from Wisconsin is marketed as some of the best here. And all the stories about endangered animals being essential to traditional medicine are true. And the stories about aborted fetal tissues used in medical concoctions are probably true. At least, the people who tell me about them believe that the stories are so.

Bloodletting has gotten a bad reputation in the west as many unemployed phlebotomists continue to assert. There are in fact diseases for which reducing the amount of blood can alleviate symptoms. And as the professional phlebomists of old used to say: "If it works for acute hypertension, why not bleed a patient with pneumonia or kidney stones?" This is probably one of the reasons why I dislike dealing with professionally minded types. The Chinese who defend even what some of them cannot explain will quickly use the argument that if it cannot be proven to not work then it does. And that same argument, that of forcing a detractor to prove a negative held sway in the west until, to be fair, alternatives were developed and put into practice. Doctors did what they did until a new method became more acceptable to engage in and to earn a living from. The idea that sometimes doing nothing is the most effective medicine was hardly cost effective even when doctors all knew what 'primum non nocere' meant and swore to uphold it.

Which now brings us to fire cupping,(many Chinese doctors, nonetheless, now use hand operated vacuums today) that other medieval practice that was due for a comeback like witchcraft and exorcism did in the 1970s. I tried to find a helpful image of cupping but all I could find locally was the above that I snapped during an anthropological promenade one afternoon. It's not gruesome or descriptive of this essay's main point but I think that the image reveals something just as helpful for treating medical conditions as fire cupping. Luckily for my expository proclivities, Gwenyth Paltrow (bless her heart and penchant for everything alternative) decided to revisit the middle ages back in 2004, subjecting her tired, qi imbalanced muscles to the ordeal and the results to aghast paparazzi and bewildered entertainment journalists. I do hope the evil spirits were removed by a certified expert though. The BBC did seek out and find such an expert, a professor, in fact, to comment on the distressing sight of a highly photogenic actress with some blemishes.
He states:
"There is no evidence for its efficacy. It has not been submitted to clinical trials, but there have certainly been satisfied customers for 3,000 years."
I am certain that Ms. Paltrow's publicist could not have agreed more. And after all who needs qualified efficacy, double blind trials, and cause and effect mumbo jumbo, when there is tradition that dates back to the time of Hippocrates and more than 1.4 billion people who have not yet been proven that it doesn't work?