One topic that is guaranteed to encourage debate in China is the effectiveness of traditional Chinese medicine. Some are passionate about its effectiveness, while others dismiss it as purely a psychosomatic phenomenon. (I have to say that, having tried it out on a couple of occasions, I’m underwhelmed in the extreme by some of the potions I have been prescribed; yet when it comes to acupuncture I am a big fan.)
Chinese medicine is built on a foundation of more than 2,500 years of medical practice. Much of it has the same roots as homeopathic remedies in the West, and it seems certainly undeniable that many of the extracts from roots and plants have positive effects on the human body.
If you’re at all interested in TCM, you can hardly do better than visit the Traditional Chinese Medicine Museum （中医药博物馆） which is affiliated to Beijing’s University of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
The museum itself was established in 1990 and its two floors cover 2,300 square metres. A donor from Hong Kong gave three million HK$ and the state added a similar amount for the museum's construction.
The first hall displays samples of just about every possible source of TCM products, and covers an area of 1,500 square metres. It appears there are about 1,100 items on display, together with a large collection of medical tomes.
First up there are glass cases full of samples of just about every possible leaf and plant you can imagine, together with a summary of what they can do for you…
Many plants I have never heard of, and likewise I was totally unaware of some of the symptoms that they can treat…
There are also loads of barks and other woody-looking substances on display, together with brief explanations about all the wonderful miracles they can perform!
Roots too, there are aplenty…
… not to mention minerals that have therapeutic properties…
But horse bezoars? Euuwww… (Just in case you are as ignorant as your favourite blogger, bezoars are stones that form in the intestinal tracts of horses. They are made of minerals – primarily magnesium and ammonium phosphate, and form around a foreign object such as a small piece of wood, twine, wire or sand.) Great if you suffer from phlegm apparently!
But after the “gentle” introduction of plants and minerals, we come to some of the more controversial aspects of TCM. Did you know that frogs can treat kidney ailments?
Or that antelope horns remove heat from the liver and arrest convulsions? Hmmm. But worry not… Antelopes, we are told on another notice, “are national first-class protected animals. Please protect the wild rare animal!” Huh! Now they tell us!
Here are some rather pretty "Coil-like White-banded snakes" that “dispel wind, remove obstructions from the collaterals and relieve spasms”. What on earth is a collateral, I ask myself. Oh... coral snakes are only national second-class protected animals... I guess that's ok then...???
Let’s not forget these beautiful sea-horses or "pipefish" as they are called here. Apparently they “warm the kidney and promote virility, reducing nodulation and inducing subsidence of swelling". Hang on a second… if they promote virility, you’d hardly want to have your swelling subside at one and the same time… or am I missing something here?
Next we come to a stuffed deer – another first class protected animal. "Please protect the wild rare anima!" we are once again exhorted.
This monkey is not, apparently, protected, so I guess having him in this glass case is OK then.
But Mr Tiger here is definitely a first-class protected animal. "The government issues the decree to ban the killing of tiger", the notice warns us ominously. A clear case of ‘don’t do as I do; do as I tell you’, I think!
This black bear is only a second-class protected animal…
…while these dead birds, apparently, have no protection at all.
But enough of this taxidermy exhibition… Let’s head on up to the next floor, devoted to the history and development of TCM.
Here’s a mock up of a typical TCM apothecary shop in the good old days.
Apparently our ancestors realised that massage is a good way of easing tensions and ailments…
…that is, when they weren’t having a good old cavort around the camp fire.
On display are tools and machines – such as this one that was used to grind down hard objects into small or powdery substances.
There’s a (very short) explanation of the pressure and acupuncture points on the human body.
And you’ll even see a peripatellapexor used for the fixation of patellapexy. Wow. Next time I feel the need to fix my patellapexy, I’ll know what to look for!
These "Sungical Devices" (stet) from the Ming Dynasty were unearthed in 1974 in Jiangsu Province. They include a flacon for clearing eyes, a fumigating jar, scalpel, ovoid-tip needles, bang needles (for discharging pus), scissors and tweezers.
In this hall, too, there are plenty of explanatory notices telling us, for example, that the Imperial Medical Academy was an organisation for medical treatment and education in ancient China. The earliest was set up in 443 AD. In the 7th century the Imperial Medical Academy was established by the Tang government. That was about 200 years earlier than the first Italian medical school.
So, everything you ever wanted to know about traditional Chinese medicine, but were afraid to ask, can be found in this establishment; and a visit to this excellent museum is strongly recommended.
But I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for all those poor animals that ended up in glass cases. At least we now know why there are so many threatened species in China; but the irony seems somehow lost on the museum’s curators.
Take subway Line 13 to Guangximen leaving from exit A. Walk across the 3rd ring road and turn left. The university campus is on your right and the museum is in the second row of buildings from the campus entrance.