A Visit to a Chinese Pharmacy

KWOK KIT has been ill for several days, so he decides he should see a doctor. Being Chinese, he prefers a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine. A friend of the family knows just such a doctor, who owns and operates an herb shop around the corner. The friend tells Kwok Kit that the doctor can concoct an herbal tea that will cure what ails him.

In China, as in most of Southeast Asia, a visit to a doctor is quite different from a visit to a doctor in Western lands. In the West a visit to the doctor usually involves making an appointment, going to the doctor’s office, getting an examination, and receiving a prescription. Then the patient must go to a pharmacy to have the prescription filled. With a Chinese doctor, the procedure is much simpler. You visit an herb shop, where there is almost always a resident herbalist who is also a doctor of Chinese medicine. He can examine you, diagnose your problem, measure out the herbal prescription, and tell you how to take it—all in one quick stop! *

Herbs as Medicine?

While most Westerners are accustomed to pills, capsules, and injections, such forms of medicine are relative newcomers. For thousands of years, people have looked to natural means of healing. Hebrew physicians in Bible times, for example, used remedies such as oil, balsam, and wine. (Isaiah 1:6; Jeremiah 46:11; Luke 10:34) Poultices made from dried figs were apparently used for treating boils.—2 Kings 20:7.

In fact, almost every nation or people has at one time used herbs and preparations of various sorts to treat illnesses and diseases. Even many spices used today in cooking were first  used for their medicinal value. This is not to say that such practices have always been successful. On the contrary, superstition and ignorance were often involved. Nevertheless, such methods for treating the sick have been around for millenniums. Even some of today’s most common medicines are derived from plants.

Theory and Practice of Chinese Medicine

Treating disease with herbal medicine is an integral part of Chinese history. Folklore credits Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor, with composing the Nei Jing, the canon of internal medicine, which medical practitioners in China still consult. * This canon, whose date of writing is debated, deals with many of the same subjects that a Western medical book may cover. It discusses not only diagnosis, symptoms, causes, treatment, and prevention of diseases but also anatomy and bodily functions.

As is true with most arts of Southeast Asia, the yin-yang doctrine has a pervasive influence in the theory and practice of Chinese medicine. In this case, yin represents cold and yang represents hot—they also represent many other opposing properties. * In addition, meridian points on the body, associated with acupuncture, are taken into account for diagnosis and treatment. Herbs and foods considered either cold or hot would be prescribed to counteract the yin-yang imbalance in the patient.

For instance, a patient with a fever is considered hot, so herbs said to be cooling would be prescribed. Although yin-yang may no longer be specifically mentioned, the same principles are still used to determine how to treat a patient. But how does the doctor of Chinese medicine arrive at the diagnosis? And what is an herb shop like? To find out, why don’t we follow Kwok Kit to the shop recommended by his friend?

 An Exotic Herb Shop

Surprise! Today Kwok Kit has to wait to see the doctor. It seems that there is a flu or cold epidemic, so two patients are ahead of him. Let’s look around the shop while we wait.

As we walked in, the first things that caught our attention were the heaps of dried goods—mushrooms, scallops, abalones, figs, nuts, and other edibles—displayed in open bins at the entrance. Yes, there are food items available here. But some of them may also be part of the prescriptions.

Looking past those items, we notice glass display counters on both sides of the rather narrow shop. These counters contain rare or special herbs, minerals, and dried animal parts, which command a high price. Looking closely, we notice deer antlers, pearls, and dried lizards and sea horses, as well as other exotic items. Until recent years, rhinoceros horn, bear gallbladders, and other animal parts like these could be found in such display cases, but now these items are banned.

In another corner of the shop, we find packets of mixed herbs for common ailments like colds and upset stomach as well as a pharmacopoeia of bottled herbal medicines from China. Just tell the shop assistant or clerk what your problem is, and he will either recommend a bottled product or give you a mixed-herb packet and tell you how to prepare it at home.

Along one side of the wall behind the shop assistant, we notice shelves lined with tall glass jars containing various dried roots, leaves, and twigs. These are herbs familiar to the patrons and may be bought for do-it-yourself cures or for cooking. On the other side of the shop, there is a floor-to-ceiling  cabinet containing many rows of well-worn drawers. It has been called baizigui, or “cabinet of one hundred children,” because there may be a hundred or more drawers in this type of herbal cabinet. These drawers permit quick access to the herbs most commonly used in prescriptions, the most frequently used ones being in the areas easiest to reach. It is not unusual for these drawers to be unlabeled. The experienced assistants know exactly where each herb is located.

Notice how deftly the assistant weighs herbs for the woman he is serving. He is using a delicate but accurate Asian scale—a graduated stick with a round tray suspended from three strings at one end and a movable weight on the other end. He knows that certain herbs can be deadly if taken in excessive amounts, so he must pay attention to his measurements. Not everything is weighed. Now we see him picking out about half a handful each of several herbs from different drawers and depositing them on a sheet of wrapping paper. Yes, you are right, this prescription also contains the shell of cicada molts. As he wraps up the collection, he tells the woman how to prepare this potion.

Herbal medicines are prepared and taken in various ways. Some come in powdered form. The patient dissolves them in hot water and then drinks the potion. Some are pastes. They are taken with honey or in some form of alcoholic spirits. However, this woman is told to use the most common method of preparation, namely, decoction. This means she will boil the herbs in a ceramic pot for about an hour. Then she will drink some of the mixture every few hours. If the woman later needs her prescription refilled, she only has to come back to the shop for another supply.

Kwok Kit’s turn to see the doctor is finally here. No, the doctor does not take his blood pressure or listen to his heartbeat. But he does ask Kwok Kit about his symptoms. How has he been sleeping? How are his digestion, appetite, bowels, temperature, and skin condition and color? The doctor looks closely at his eyes and the color of various areas of his tongue. Now he is taking Kwok Kit’s pulse from both wrists in several positions and with varying pressures, a procedure that is believed to reveal the condition of various organs and parts of the body. Why, the doctor even takes note of any unusual odors he detects! The verdict? Not surprisingly, Kwok Kit has the flu. He needs bed rest and plenty of liquids along with a prescription that he is to boil up and drink. The resulting herbal tea will be bitter, but it will make him feel better. In addition to telling Kwok Kit which foods he should avoid, the doctor even kindly prescribes a preserved plum that will leave a nice taste in Kwok Kit’s mouth after he takes his medicine.

So, off Kwok Kit goes with his packet of herbs. The doctor’s visit and the medicine cost him less than $20—quite a bargain. Although the herbs will not bring a miracle cure, Kwok Kit should be well in a few days. But he must not make the mistake that some have, thinking that more is better. It is not unusual to hear of people suffering severe reactions because of overdoses of certain herbs.

In some countries there are little or no standards regulating either herbs or practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine. This has opened the door to herbal quackery and even the sale of dangerous herbal concoctions passed off as cures. Understandably, then, when it comes to choosing a traditional Chinese doctor, many Asian patients rely on recommendations of relatives and close friends.

Of course, no treatment—be it with herbs or Western medicines—can cure every sickness. Nonetheless, the Chinese pharmacy and its doctor of traditional medicine continue to be an integral part of life in Asia.

[Footnotes]

^ par. 3 Awake! does not endorse any particular treatment for health problems. Christians should be certain that any treatment they pursue does not conflict with Bible principles.

^ par. 8 The Yellow Emperor, a legendary ruler before the Zhou dynasty, is said to have ruled from 2697 to 2595 B.C.E. Many scholars, however, believe that the Nei Jing was not put into writing until the end of the Zhou dynasty, which ran approximately from 1100 to 250 B.C.E.

^ par. 9 The Chinese character “yin” literally means “shade” or “shadow” and represents darkness, cold, femininity. “Yang,” the opposite, stands for things bright, hot, masculine.

[Pictures on page 23]

Exotic items, including dried sea horses, can be found in the herb shop

[Pictures on page 24]

Dried roots, leaves, and twigs are carefully weighed