​Traditional Chinese Medicine: Qi and the art of physical maintenance

About 10 days ago I picked up a typical autumn cold. I likely picked it up from my sneezing and snotty students after a week of rain and cold. It quickly developed into a raging throat infection. I was off work for a week because I completely lost my voice, followed by a barking cough. Finally I’m recovering, and happily typing away in my sunny living room. This afternoon I go back to work. Here are a couple of observations about traditional Chinese medicine versus Western medicine. Or rather Chinese AND Western medicine. Because you don’t have to choose, you can use both.

I quickly self-diagnosed as suffering a common virus, which is best treated by lots of rest and drinking plenty of fluids. I took to bed and drank liters of hot ginger lime and honey tea.  In order to qualify for sick pay I had to go to the hospital to get a doctors note. At a nearby laowai hospital the American doctor confirmed my self-diagnosis and prescribed the same. Sleep and fluids, and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to ease the scratchy throat. A common cold or flu can take up to two weeks to clear up.

Antibiotics: just say no (when you don’t need them)

When I told this to my management and colleagues I was shocked by how eagerly they all were to suggest antibiotics. If one teacher is ill it means that the other ones have to take over. So, I completely understand that they wanted me to be better and back at work asap. But, you cannot force an illness. And antibiotics are often more harmful than not.

One, antibiotics only work for bacterial infections. These only account for about 10% of throat infections. Two, if you take antibiotics often you will develop resistance and it won’t work when you really need it. Say, when you need an operation. Three, antibiotics not only wipe out the bad bacteria but also the good ones, meaning there are some serious side effects. Your system will need time to recover and your resistance against other illnesses will be lower. Lastly, antibiotic resistance is a very worrying growing global problem. The only way we can prevent worldwide antibiotics resistance is to stop eating them like candy. It is not a cure-all and the consequences of misuse are severe.

As it is I felt I had to defend myself for not wanting to take antibiotics. As if I wasn’t trying hard enough to get better. A very unpleasant situation, largely based on a dangerous ignorance about antibiotics. I felt too wiped out to really get into it with my colleagues but I want to share it here and hopefully increase understanding.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

One upside of being ill in China is that you have an ancient medical science at your disposal. Traditional Chinese Medicine has some great benefits but is fundamentally different from Western Medicine. Luckily it is not either or: they can coexist and complement each other.

Western medicine has the benefit of modern inventions such as antibiotics, state of the art operation technology, chemo therapy etc. Ultimately it operates by treating specific symptoms as they occur.

TCM has been practiced for at least 2500 years. This means that there is a lot of empirical evidence for its efficacy, even if modern science doesn’t support the theory behind it. Wikipedia offers some valid misgivings such as the use of endangered species, potentially toxic plants and the lack of research into the effectiveness.

TCM is based on the classical Chinese concepts of qi, yin and yang and the five phases theory. Qi is the vital life force circulating through meridians, channels that branch out through the body connecting bodily organs and functions.

Yin and yang are two opposing abstract aspects that can be ascribed to every aspect of the universe, so not just the body but also city planning for instance (feng shui is based on this). Yin represents the moon, female, interior, cold, downward and damp energy. Yang is the sun, male, outside, hot, upward and dry.

The five phases theory presumes that all natural phenomena consist of a combination of the elemental qualities of wood, fire, earth, metal and water, corresponding with directions, foods, climates, tastes, organs, senses and facial parts.

These concepts have some similarities with European mediaeval medical practices based on four humours (bodily fluids)  and the four temperaments (phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine and melancholic) that influence health. When the qi flow, the yin and yang balance and the five phases are not functioning well it can be treated with herbal medicine, massage, acupuncture, excercise and dietary therapy.

What I really like is the holistic approach, meaning the whole physical and mental system is taken into account when diagnosing and prescribing medication, not merely targeting a specific symptom as is common in Western medicine. Another aspect I really value is the focus on preventing illness. Chinese medicine is ultimately about balancing qi (vital life force) which will keep your system functioning well and illnesses away.

And the packaging is really pretty:

On the mend

So, instead of antibiotics I have been taking various TCM medicines. Syrups made of throat-cooling loquat fruit, herbal pellets to melt in the mouth and of course the quintessential Chinese doctors prescription of ‘drink hot water’, which will cure any illness. Today I’m feeling a lot better and I know a bit more about TCM.

The last thing that finally helped me a lot to get better was three warmshowers guests. I hosted Claire (UK), Perry (AUS) and Mike (USA) and they were great at buying me food, helping out around the house and generally being lovely company so I never felt sad and lonely. The qi energy of my house has been optimal with them around ☺

It’s not you China, it’s me

Like many laowai I have come to China to work. I have also come here to have a closer look at this fascinating country of natural wonders, ancient traditions, ultramodern technology and rapid economic rise. China is exhilarating and never boring. I could stay here and study forever and not know everything there is to know about it, and not see everything there is to see. It is too big to ever fully grasp. The sheer size is just one of the many aspects that I find fascinating. China can never be painted with a broad brush.

Yet, this is exactly what many of my fellow laowai do. I hear a lot of foreigners complaining. About the hacking and spitting, about letting small children pee in the street, and even about curious Chinese people who approach them for a friendly chat. I don’t understand how this can ever be offensive? This is just people going about their everyday business. I never feel as if someone is deliberately trying to be annoying. If anything people go out of their way to be helpful and friendly. The sociability is actually one of the things I will miss when I leave.

Pee pee
Pee pee

There are of course some things I also find deeply annoying. For one I will never get used to the traffic. Big SUV’s have the right of way over smaller fry. They will cut me off on my bicycle when they turn a corner, without indicating and while talking on their phone. This is infuriating. Another thing I find hard to swallow is the lack of strategy and management in my company, which I suspect is common in other Chinese businesses as well. This means I receive different orders every week and they don’t always make sense. It is hard to have a conversation about this with the management. But even in these cases, where it is definitely inconvenient for me, I do try to understand this is not because China is out to get me. My Chinese colleagues and fellow road users suffer from this as much as me.

China is challenging at times. However I never feel the need to blame China for my struggles to understand the language, the people and their customs. If I have a difficult time it’s not because China is wrong, it’s because I don’t understand enough. It’s not you China, it’s me.

Planning ahead

As it is I understand so little it is hard to build meaningful friendships outside of the usual expat circle (which I am not really interested in, see the previous mention of moaning). So, I have made a tentative plan. The idea is I will keep studying Chinese until the end of my contract June next year. Then I will cycle home in about 3 or 4 months, visiting friends in Georgia, the Balkans and the rest of Europe on the way. I will settle back in Amsterdam, to reconnect with friends, family, and work. I will keep up my study of the Chinese language, and later hopefully return. By that time I should be able to connect better and have better job prospects, for instance with the wonderful Linden Centre. Because despite our differences, I do love you China.

The last few weeks I have reconnected with friends and family. This has also made me long for home more than ever before. My parents came to visit which was great, and I am glad they got to see how and why I live here. They were happily surprised by the modernity and friendliness of contemporary China. I am pulled between my home in Amsterdam and my new life here. Time will tell how this will balance out. For now it is back to my Chinese study and my books about Chinese culture. The best company any occasionally lonely laowai could ever wish for.

Recommended reading

This is my current reading and study list:

Please feel free to leave your suggestions for Chinese language and culture books, websites and apps in the comments. 谢谢!