I was one of 16 students part of Shanghai American School's 2012-2013 educational program set in a small village in Yunnan, Xizhou, for a month (March-April). Over the course of each week, I would explore the village, finding answers to my questions about TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), which is the topic I chose to study in Xizhou. Below is the final piece of my learning- my final product, this writing piece illustrates what I learnt here during my stay. Please enjoy!
I chose the topic of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) because I am very interested in medicine. Ever since my mom started watching House M.D., the TV show about medicine, I instantaneously developed a liking to medicine. The way the doctors treated their patients and the way they carefully examine then diagnose patients absolutely drew me into the world of medicine. The advancement of medicine has drastically improved and flourished in the past decade, and I hope to expand and increase my knowledge on the study of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
My sources are mostly from what I read online and in books about TCM (Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to TCM), from Ryan's project last year, and Dr. Zhao. I chose these sources because they are reliable and informed. Dr. Zhao is my main resource for information because he has had many years of learning TCM and Western medicine, and I get to have one on one conversations with him where he answers my questions for me.
My initial questions were about the herbal part of TCM (where to find herbs for TCM, how herbs are made into medicine, etc.), but as I spent time in the village, my questions began to shift and center around the future and survival of TCM in Xizhou (does Dr. Zhao think TCM will last in the years to come, how did TCM change throughout the years, etc.).
The main point I hope to share through my final product is the decreased role of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Chinese culture.
What I Learned:
I came to Xizhou with a preconceived idea that there would be many TCM doctors here and that TCM is the main study of medicine in China. I wanted to learn about the herb cultivation and preparation in Traditional Chinese Medicine. However for the first two weeks of my stay here, I spent most of my free time devoted to finding TCM practitioners and doctors, and to my surprise they were all said to have “left or died”. Here is my story:
During my first week in Xizhou, I looked for a Dr. Zhao, the only TCM doctor I believed to still be alive in Xizhou, and after many days of restless searching and asking around, on Tuesday March 26, I stumbled across Dr. Zhao’s pharmacy by pure luck. I was wandering in the market, exploring the outskirts of Xizhou, when I saw some Western pharmacies. I decided to ask the doctors there if they know of nearby TCM doctors and one said there should be an old shop straight along the road, so I followed her directions and headed there with hope that I would finally find a TCM doctor here. I arrived at an old-looking pharmacy with a sign saying: 赵卫生室 (Dr. Zhao's Pharmacy). I instantly knew I had found the place.
This was great news because earlier in the week, I had been on numerous wild goose chases. One local source told me there are TCM doctors in Xia Guan, two sources told me there were herb shops in the market nearby Si Fang Jie, and many other sources said there were no TCM doctors left in Xizhou. When I asked them what they meant by “left”, one replied, “Most of the TCM doctors here are elderly and they passed away some time ago.” Another replied, “There were many TCM doctors before, but now Western medicine is mostly used so TCM doctors left to places like Xia Guan.” These unavailing responses sent me in all directions, and soon I was all over the place. Shortly, I began to think what if there actually are no more TCM doctors left in Xizhou…
A few days later, in my notes I wrote: “I am starting to question if TCM is really effective, or if it is just a practice of medicine that Chinese people used to participate in. I can understand why the people these days (especially in China) are turning to Western medicine. Western medicine continues to advance each day, while TCM just stays where it is at because it is a traditional practice of medicine. Western medicine is based more on a trial and error type of testing, says Mr. T, we are 99% sure that the Western medicine we take for certain illnesses will cure it, but for TCM, it's different. I find it interesting that in Western places, such as the US, people are starting to turn to TCM or more specifically the holistic approach to medicine, and people in Eastern places are turning to Western medicine.” As days go by and research progresses, more and more evidence manifest my theory of TCM decreasing in both usage and practice in Xizhou. Searching for TCM doctors for almost two weeks in China and not finding any...that is rather perplexing, is it not?
This was when I started to shift my focus on my topic of Traditional Chinese Medicine. In the beginning, I hoped to come here to learn about cultivation of herbal remedies, but as research progressed, I became more intrigued in why TCM was deteriorating in rural areas of China, if TCM would have a future in Xizhou, and why Western medicine usage and practice is disseminating everywhere. The reason for this sudden change of heart was because I realized what point is there in learning about herb cultivation if TCM is not going to last in the future. Also, I began to lose interest in herbs owing to the fact that I was perplexed by not being able to find a single TCM doctor in Xizhou for so long. Being the person I am, I just had to find out why. I gathered reliable information using the few sources I had: Dr. Zhao, Mr. Zhao, Ryan’s Project last year, and any informed locals.
Dr. Zhao, who is extremely knowledgeable in TCM and Western medicine, served as my main resource of information. Dr. Zhao (赵乐瑞) is currently 67 years old (as of March 2013), and he still practices TCM. In 1963 when he was 18, he started the long journey of medicine. He told me when he was younger, he wanted to become an artist, but when he was 15, his mother broke her leg and there were no doctor that could fix it. Frustrated by this, Dr. Zhao decided to become a doctor to help his mother and other people to his best effort. When he was 20, the people here heavily relied on TCM, being the main and most practiced medicine in China. He has medical degrees in both TCM and Western medicine. I asked him if he preferred TCM more or Western medicine, and he told me that he personally thinks that TCM is better. He says that because he feels TCM heals the body as a whole, it balances the imbalanced, and when he diagnoses someone using TCM, he focuses on their whole body, not just a specific area. TCM also has more complex meanings and understandings that one must grasp to fully understand TCM, such as the Yin and the Yang, the Five Elements, the Theory of Qi, and such. Dr. Zhao believes that TCM will last in the years to come because TCM is widespread in China and it is part of the Chinese tradition and culture. No matter how omnipresent Western medicine is, TCM would still be the main and foremost medicine branch in China. Though years go by, Dr. Zhao remembers TCM to still be unchanging. Since TCM is the traditional practice of Chinese medicine, I did not expect there to be much change over the years because TCM is based on set rules, understandings, and philosophical means, so it is hard to change all of it. It would have to take a great TCM movement in order to transform the way it is practiced and has been practiced for many centuries. Dr. Zhao says even though TCM practice is decreasing in Xizhou, there are still many young people interested in TCM, so the practice will continue on.
Unlike the unchanging TCM, Xizhou has been greatly impacted by Westernization. Mr. Zhao, a lucid 94-year-old man who has been living in Xizhou for his whole life, told me that he remembers it was in 1928 when Western medicine first came to China. The first part of the twentieth century was mostly a one way flow of information as the developments in Western medicine flooded into China. However, in the second half of the last century, due to government support and medical standardization, TCM now operates in large teaching hospitals, side by side with Western medicine.
In Western countries, TCM was relatively unknown until President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Reports of acupuncture usage for pain control appeared in the New York Times. Ever since then, there has been rapid growth in the awareness and usage of TCM in Western countries. Many universities and hospitals in the US offer teaching degrees in TCM. People in Western countries now are seeking TCM treatments, such as acupuncture and herbal therapy. The lack of holistic perspective, short consultation times, and debilitating side effects of pharmaceutical drugs are just some reasons why Western places are seeking TCM treatments. Overseas students graduating from prestigious TCM universities across China every year are becoming known as foreign “heirs” of the country’s thousand-year medical heritage. Though believed to be effective by practitioners, some Westerners still consider TCM to be just an alternative medical system.
All in all, after three weeks here in Xizhou of studying TCM, my focus ended up being understanding the future of TCM instead of learning about herb cultivation. Though TCM is deteriorating in rural areas of China, such as in Xizhou, I believe strongly that the tradition of TCM will continue to be kept alive in the hearts of the people here, and the few people who remain studying TCM would carry it on. Nonetheless, TCM is also widely practiced in Western countries. To conclude my inquiry project, my final statement is even though TCM is lessening in usage and practice in Xizhou, the Chinese tradition of it and the remaining TCM practitioners and doctors will keep this branch of medicine alive in the future years.
The Microcampus experience was extraordinarily phenomenal. Every day I learnt new things and fed my undying thirst of knowledge. I am just in awe at how much I was in tune with my nature and everything around me there in Xizhou. This trip had impacted my perspective on life and my understanding of myself. It made me realize that there is so much around me that I am missing out in in Shanghai. Just a simple walk around the village led to a better understanding of the lifestyle and people here. This sudden awareness had made me feel that the lifestyle and "bubble" I was living in in Shanghai was like a cage, keeping my curiosity and thirst for knowledge trapped. Whereas, in Xizhou, where I was free to soar and explore the environment around me, I was able to experience life at its fullest. Even though, I still have a lot of freedom in Shanghai, it is not every day I get to peak into someone's house and talk to them about life. The freedom we were given in Xizhou to explore is boundless, unalike the freedom we have in Shanghai. I enjoyed the environment and lifestyle we lived in Xizhou very much, it was most definitely a privilege to be part of this trip and I would very much hold my newly found perception of life dear to my heart.
My topic (Traditional Chinese Medicine) had changed immensely during the course of my study. I started out wanting to learn just about how to make herbal remedies and having a basic understanding of TCM. However as days went by, my understanding of TCM had increased drastically and my topic became centered around the future and survival of TCM in Xizhou. My focus changed because of two main reasons: one, I had trouble finding Dr. Zhao; two, I started losing interest in herbs and became more interested in the future of TCM.
The most difficult parts of my research would be finding Dr. Zhao and understanding him. It took me almost two weeks to find him and once I did, because of my restricted Chinese, sometimes I did not quite understand what exactly he was talking about.
A major "a-ha" moment was during the time in which I was searching for Dr. Zhao. However, this was more of a psychological discovery than a physical one. I came to Xizhou with a preconceived idea that there would be numerous TCM doctors and pharmacies everywhere because we are in China and TCM is the Chinese practice of medicine. However, after searching for Dr. Zhao for a week, I realized that there are indeed many pharmacies around here, but all of them are for Western medicine and not TCM. At this point, I started to wonder if there even were any TCM doctors left in Xizhou. I shifted my focus on TCM and became more interested in the future and survival of TCM, instead of the herbal part.
My project on TCM centers around the future and survival of TCM in rural parts of China (such as Xizhou). It helped me understand TCM better in general because in order to be able to write about the survival and future of TCM in China, I have to have some basic understanding of TCM or else I would not know what I am writing about. Also, during the process of gathering information, I learnt a lot of TCM, for instance: the Five Elements, the Theory of Qi, Yin and Yang, some names of herbs and their usage, etc.
This project allowed me to interact with the people here in Xizhou because I had to ask around to find Dr. Zhao and I also had to ask people for their insight on TCM. I talked to Dr. Zhao a lot too. I was lucky to be pretty fluent in Chinese because that allowed me to communicate a lot better than some people with locals.
This project made me understand myself better because it proved to me my strong interest in medicine and thirst of knowledge. In times ahead, I do hope to find a future in medicine; however, I am thinking more of a Western medicine study than a TCM one. But by studying and understanding TCM in Xizhou, I now have a basic understanding of TCM which may come in handy some time. Also, it made me realize that I am a curious person and I enjoy exploring all that life has.
Some advice that would had helped me is the exact location of where Dr. Zhao was, because it took me almost two weeks to find him. However, that was alright because it allowed me to think more about TCM and it led to my focus on my project being altered. Also, if someone encouraged me to explore and peak into people's houses more then I think I would had became friends with more local people, which comes in handy for Service Learning.
If I were to continue this research project, I would want to expand the area in which I am gathering my data from, meaning having more doctors to talk to and to focus on not just Xizhou but other places in China too. In addition to that, I would want more time to talk to Dr. Zhao. I would also take some time to spend with Western doctors to gather their insight. If another Microcampus student were to expand on my project, I would suggest trying to find other TCM doctors in Xizhou and/or talk to some Western doctors here. In addition, a chance to talk to Brian Linden and his wife would be great because their vast knowledge on the village would be helpful.
I would like to thank Mr. Tafel for all the support he has given me throughout my project, all the time he has put into making this possible for us, and all his patience for when we were behind.
I would like to thank Dr. Zhao for taking his time to explain TCM to me and for sharing his insight.
I would like to thank Ryan (from pilot Microcampus group) for giving me an idea of what the study of TCM here looks like.
I would like to thank Ms. Mai and XiaoTang for being encouraging and really nice to me during the whole Microcampus trip.