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Cauldrons of mysterious elixirs of health seethe and bubble

Sooty cooper cauldrons with mysterious contents bubbled and steamed above flames, giving off a dense herbal aroma. Men in blue uniforms with high black rubber boots walked through puddles, up and down long rows of kettles, at least a hundred, stirring them with long wooden ladles.

This is a traditional Chinese medicine workshop where each cauldron contains a specific prescription for gao fang, a winter reinforcement therapy to build and balance energy and boost immunity.

There is no eye of newt and toe of frog, or tooth of wolf, as in “Macbeth,” but there are eye of dragon, bone of dragon, spine of dog, herb of virtuous woman, hide of donkey, antler of deer, shell of turtle, mother of pearl. And better-known herbs such as ginseng, angelica, milk vetah, jujube seeds, among hundreds of others.

This workshop at Yueyang Hospital is where I will get my own prescription of 43 ingredients filled, if I pay 2,000 to 3,000 yuan (US$328-492). Thousands of people, young and elderly Chinese, flock to the hospital in Hongkou District at this time of year.

Last year the hospital sold 20,000 gao fang prescriptions in the two-month period leading up to the Winter Solstice on December 21 when, traditionally, people are supposed to start taking gao fang for six to eight weeks.

It’s that congealed paste you see in jars sold in pharmacies all over China, some patent, some prescription. It’s also sold as a liquid in little plastic pouches, popular with young people on the go.

This ancient therapy for seasonal health maintenance is not covered by standard medical insurance — it’s optional — so everyone pays out of pocket, a sign of how popular it is and how much people believe in traditional treatments.

As for me, I’ve been reading and polishing TCM stories for quite a few years and I am familiar with the saying, “Take good gao fang in winter, and you can kill a tiger in the spring.”

I’ve never tried it, though I have had acupuncture, which helped with back pain, and I believe in the pharmacology, the science of herbal medicine. The yin-yang philosophy and arcane concepts seem quite metaphysical and still elude me.

Anyhow, I was going with another expat, two Chinese colleagues — and a photographer to record it all — to see a TCM doctor for a quick check on my yin, yang and qi — and a prescription.

The doctor, Professor (Ted) Zhang Teng, is a director of the hospital’s clinical research institute of integrative medicine and chef physician of the hospital’s geriatrics department. Three years ago he returned from a six-year stint at the Cleveland Clinic studying genetics and heart disease.

He asked me about my general health, blood pressure, blood sugar, diet and bowels. He took the pulse on both wrists. He pronounced it “slippery,” which is not bad, usually indicating good vascular elasticity and reduced blood viscosity. He looked at my tongue, a little too dark red, with a white coating, but not a big deal.

I told him I eat a healthy diet, with lots of vegetables, no bad fats, and exercise regularly. I sometimes have trouble sleeping and I do have lower back pain.

He concluded that I’m in basically good shape, though my constitution is a bit deficient in yin energy and general qi. He reminded me to eat regular meals, as the Chinese do, and not to drink cold water and cold drinks, since the cold (yin) is bad for the digestion.

Then came the prescription for energy balance (addressing those deficiencies) and a wide range of general benefits. Dr Zhang said it would help with sleep and with back pain.

Then he took a long time to meticulously write a prescription of more than 40 ingredients with precise quantities, writing vertically, right to left. It comes in an attractive booklet and is suitable for framing. (I opted for the little plastic ouches).

The standard advice is to take 30 grams, a spoonful, twice a day in hot water. Don’t eat raw radishes or drink strong tea at the same time. Stop gao feng in case of cold, cough or diarrhea.

Victoria’s prescription

My prescription for general health contains 43 ingredients with seemingly countless benefits, including 11 “precious” herbs and items. The matrix paste contains collagen and glues; it also reinforces energy and has numerous other benefits.

It contains donkey hide, deer antler, turtle shell and turtle plastron (under shell), as well as yellow rice wine — the alcohol masks not-too-pleasant odors. It contains rock sugar and malt sugar.

Other ingredients for reinforcement, sleep and back pain include — and these are just some of the exotic names — dragon bones (fossils, excavated bones) for sleep, dragon’s eye (longan) for warmth, virtuous woman evergreen herb (nu zhen zi 女贞子) for back pain (helps kidney); dog spine (gou ji 狗脊) for back pain, mother of pearl for sleep.

There are less exotic but no less important ingredients such as ginseng, angelica, hawthorn, rubber tree bark, milk vetah, and Chinese foxglove to name a few.

Now, will I take my medicine?

By Victoria Graham

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