A willow branch can cure skin problems, rock sugar plus a sweet peach helps with asthma, diced garlic drives away painful menstruation ... Simple, affordable, easy to practice, fast-acting and mysterious, folk prescriptions (pian fang) have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years.
Since ancient times, folk remedies have been concocted by villagers around China through a combination of wisdom and experience. Though not approved by the official medical system, the prescriptions with "magical curing effects" are favored by many Chinese people.
Pian fang or mi fang (secret remedies) refer to traditional Chinese medicine prescriptions not included in the Pharmacopoeia of People's Republic of China or other official TCM books.
Having been practiced for centuries, these remedies usually feature easy-to-get herbs, simple treatment methods and work quickly on various ailments ranging from minor coughs to complicated illnesses such as Ménière's syndrome, tumors and cancers.
"The folk prescriptions, I think, are a tremendous treasure, a shining pearl of TCM," says Qian Hai, a professor at Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine. "They are primitive, yet full of intelligence. They are inexhaustible resources because you never know exactly how many folk remedies are out there. You would be shocked each time at how magical they are."
Zhang Mingchang, a 59-year-old Anhui Province native, collects folk prescriptions and opened a clinic in the Pudong New Area.
He has more than 3,000 remedies from all over China.
"Almost 2,700 of these remedies cannot be found in any book," Zhang says, proudly. "People might be biased toward folk prescriptions, which I totally understand."
The general public may also be skeptical after hearing of media reports in which people misused a folk remedy or didn't prepare it properly, leading to poisoning cases or even deaths.
Zhang says many of his prescriptions are used externally. "Patients might be afraid if they are asked to ingest any medicine," he says. "So many of my prescriptions are easy and safe to be done at home without eating."
Water boiled with willow branches can treat skin diseases if applied on the rash. A sponge soaked in alcohol and stuffed inside ears for five minutes can cure a headache and insomnia. Seven chopped earthworms with flour applied on the belly button treats a high fever in children.
He even claims some of his prescriptions with aloe and asparagus are effective in removing tumors and curing cancers.
During the past three decades, Zhang has never had to go to the hospital or taken any medicine.
Professor Qian admits folk prescriptions do cure complicated diseases though doctors can't explain why.
"They (pian fang) might not be explained scientifically by the modern medical profession at the moment, but we can't deny their effects," Qian says.
Usually Chinese patients don't choose folk prescriptions as the first course of treatment. Only after hospitals fail will they consider folk remedies.
Some well-known popular folk prescriptions are spread by word of mouth while some are kept secret by TCM masters. In the case of secret remedies, these are only passed down to family members and kept strictly confidential.
In recent years, government and healthcare departments have encouraged some families and TCM masters to release exclusive prescriptions to the public.
The well-known Wong Lo Kat herbal tea was invented by Guangdong native Wang Zebang during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The tea contains more than 10 traditional herbs and is effective in dispelling inner heat.
Baiyao powder was first used by doctor Qu Huanzhang in Yunnan Province in 1902. Today it is the country's most-known medicine to cure bruises, bone injuries and sprains. The prescription is still a secret today and protected by a patent.
Lei Dasheng, who founded the time-honored Lei Yun Shang pharmacy during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), invented the Liu Shen Pill, which is used to treat sore throats, swelling pains and dispel inner heat. The pill was originally made up of many precious medicines such as niu huang (cow's gall bladder stone), musk, realgar and many others.
Today the prescription has been improved and some precious ingredients have been replaced by artificial medicines, but the effect is the same.
It often happens that the same prescription works for one patient but not on another. "This is the reason why folk prescriptions are always doubted and denied by the official medical system," Qian says. "Many doctors don't realize that prescriptions have limitations."
The professor calls for a more tolerant attitude toward folk medical practice. "Various prescriptions were invented according to a specific climate, region, environment and culture. Just because they don't work on you doesn't mean they are not effective."
Qian often takes regular field trips with his students to the country's remote areas to collect and discover medical herbs. "I can always find some new herbs and learn from the experiences of villagers," he says.
One interesting thing the professor finds in rural areas is that folk prescriptions are often simple and easy to remember. Local farmers might not know the official name of each herb, but they rename the plants by the functions they discover. Thus there is lowering-blood-sugar grass or miscarriage-prevention flower and many others.
"Actually the prescriptions included in the Pharmacopoeia were also pian fang once before. It was after a long period of practice, proof and verification that they became 'official'," Qian says. "So today's folk remedies could also be official tomorrow. We should hold an ongoing view on folk prescriptions."
However, many horrible cases of misuse have occurred in recent years.
Last month, a mother and a daughter in Sichuan Province were poisoned after they ate the cooked eggs of two toads with soy sauce, which was said to cure a headache. They vomited and passed out. The mother later died in hospital.
Toad's eggs, according to TCM, can strengthen heart functions, reduce swelling, alleviate pain and detoxify the body. But if handled improperly, the toads with toxin under their skin and in the internal organs can cause blindness and even death.
The diary of Yu Juan, 31, a PhD holder from Fudan University who died of cancer last year, stopped hospital treatment in favor of a pian fang of "hunger therapy" hyped up by Yang Dezhen, 59, who had falsely claimed to be a TCM master. After Yu's death, police discovered Yang was actually a school accountant.
According to Yang's instructions, Yu gave up daily meals and ate only grapes, taro and bowls of TCM concoctions. The 40-day treatment cost Yu more than 100,000 yuan (US$15,730).
Yu then vomited and spit blood, which Yang said "was spitting out the cancer cells." Her family at last sent her back to hospital, but it was too late because the cancer cells had spread.
Qian says these cases are sad, but offer a valuable lesson in the use of folk remedies.
"The prescriptions are undoubtedly effective only under professional guidance and with proper handling," Qian says. "It also helps protect folk prescriptions. I still believe that traditional Chinese medicine can only thrive in the soil of folk practices."
For bad colds
Sticky rice congee, seven onion stalks, seven slices of ginger and 50g of vinegar.
Eat this every day and the bad cold will disappear.
(Provided by Zhang Mingchang)
For high blood pressure
30g jin yin hua (honeysuckle flower), 30g chrysanthemum petals, 4g mulberry leaves (if you feel dizzy) and 30g dried hawthorn (if you have high cholesterol).
Boil them to make tea and drink everyday.
(Provided by Zhang Mingchang)
For children with high fever
Seven chopped fresh earthworms kneaded with flour.
Stick them on the navel.
(Provided by Zhang Mingchang)
Drink 20-25ml of vinegar with Chinese cabbage heart soaked in sugar water.
Or smash white turnip to drink the juice. You can also eat turnip fresh.