A Short Survey of Traditional Chinese Medicine

16 Oct

Traditional Chinese Medicine is a tricky subject for me. One the one hand, it often stands apart from western medicine and science, roughly in the same area as homeopathy or other alternative medicines. Untested cures based on tradition, rather than evidence. On the other hand, not a lot of study has flown the other way, either. With such an array of history, it’s quite likely that some if not many of the cures are actually effective in some manner, but not a lot of research has been done with regards to Traditional Chinese Medicine and a number of interesting compounds are now being discovered thanks to these cures. That said, I think I’ll stick with vaccines and vitamins.

But Traditional Chinese Medicine also has a societal aspect to it too, one that is just as complex as the scientific aspect. Demand for rare animal parts has fueled decades of poaching and destruction. A major fraction of tiger and rhino poaching goes directly into the black markets of Traditional Chinese Medicine. But on the other hand, this is a rich tradition that goes back thousands of years and the philosophies it has been based on have long been a cornerstone of how China viewed the world.

Tricky. Tricky.

Well, enough of opinions and hard thought. It’s time to point out some of the more interesting ingredients in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Now, most of the time you’ll see things like ginger or ginkgo. Maybe a lotus root or two in there somewhere, but these ingredients are substantially weirder.

  • Ophiocordyceps sinesis A parasitic fungus that grows out of the heads of subterranean caterpillars high on the Tibetan plateau. The price of this aphrodisiac and cancer treatment has exploded. A pound can cost up to $50,000.
  • Dried seahorse – Seahorses tend to arrive on the market as bycatch from shrimp trawlers around the Phillipines and India, although some are specifically hunted by lamplight. Dried seahorse can be used for impotence and incontinence, aiding circulation, and relieving swelling.
  • Turtle shell – Invigorates the blood and attacks malaria.
  • Silkworm feces – Used to treat diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Also apparently keeps your stomach from growling.
  • Scorpions – Clears the liver and relieves headaches.
  • Cinnabar – A vibrant red ore, actually a natural form of mercury sulfate, ground into a powder. It’s taken to calm the heart and reduce anxiety. Just like in European alchemy, Chinese Taoists believed that mercury was essential in creating their elixir of immortality. Mercury is, of course, highly toxic and neurological symptoms can develop if taken incautiously.
  • Realgar – Also known as ruby sulphur, these bright red crystals are taken for sore throats, swellings, and to kill intestinal parasites. And it certainly will kill those, realgar is actually a form of arsenic and like cinnabar should be taken with care.
  • Cicada moultings – Clears rashes, relieves visual obstruction, and ‘disperses wind’.
  • Pangolin scales – Used to keep menses regular and prevent period cramps.
  • Hornets nests – Relieves pain and toothaches and clears up ringworm.
  • Centipedes – Prevents lock jaw and seizures as well as counteracting toxins.

Yeah, I don’t think I need any centipedes, thanks.

Sources: seahorse-australia, yinyanghouse

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Posted by on October 16, 2012 in Anthropology, History, Medicine, Modernity


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