I can hear a bell’s overtone as he mixes the medicine under a mortar and pestle, his bowl not unlike a Buddhist monk’s, copper-colored and gleaming with the rub of use. He is middle-aged and unremarkable looking, but his ordinariness is what glows against such an extraordinary backdrop: wooden drawers from left to right and floor to ceiling, carved with tiny gold Chinese characters; small pyramid-shaped piles of seeds, twigs and powders flanking his movements on either side of the well-worn countertop; the old-fashioned and well-tested tools of hand-held weigh scales, giant tweezers and metal scoops balanced on the shelf behind him. He is a man whose face I wouldn’t remember on the street. But here, he is a magician.
My Chinese in-laws laugh at my fascination with the zhongyi clinic on the first floor of our apartment building. Every time I walk by, I inhale the slightly pungent, earthy odor of healing agents, raw and ready to cure. I love the place so much that I asked permission to photograph it, much to the staff’s surprise – or perhaps their quiet amusement: what is that strange foreign lady doing?
“Don’t believe them in there,” my MIL says. “They’ll just rip you off.”
It’s not that she doesn’t believe in Traditional Chinese Medicine, but TCM has been commoditized just like any other all-natural industry and she balks at their prices.
“At least go to a proper clinic at a hospital where they don’t rely on foreigners to spill their money just inside the door.”
She has a point, I know, but the Chinese hospitals, while much cheaper – particularly for services like acupuncture and cupping – don’t have the singing bowls and the winking drawers. I am smitten.
I married into a Chinese family so you’d think I’d be the one to bring all Western traditions to the household, but I’m the first to denounce Western medicine.
“I don’t trust the pharmaceutical industry,” I tell them.
They laugh. “Western medicine is science,” they say, trying to teach me about my own culture.
“You think there’s no science in TCM? No calculations, data, evidence of effectiveness?”
They laugh even more at this: the Western daughter-in-law defending their Chinese culture.
But the truth is, I’m no expert. I watch the twist of his grinding wrist while breathing in the wafts of steam from the brewing in the adjacent room, and I simply feel privileged. I am witness to such a time-honored tradition in the heart of a metropolis exploding with modernity. Here, in this little shop, what has been done for centuries in China continues. In fact, I’d wager the most modern thing to come into this shop is me – the foreigner with the Chinese husband who lives upstairs.
I concede that not all Western medicine is evil and, likewise, that modern TCM has become mass-produced and commercialized. We live in a profit driven economy, after all. I know, I know. In other words, this magic show will cost me.
But, I’m willing; I support the preservation of TCM and I don’t care if I’m being tricked. A big part of magic is the show, the pure wonder of it all. On the path to wellness, I’ll choose awe over skepticism every time.
I take one more look at the TCM pharmacist. He is following a carefully written script supplied by the doctor – complex characters containing vertical numbers like falling exponentials – deftly swiveling and measuring between one potion’s drawer and the next.
I resist the urge to applaud.
Later, when I drink my pre-boiled pouches of bitter brown history, I’ll remind myself of a simple choice:
About the Writer
Ember Swift is a Canadian musician and writer who has been living in Beijing since late 2008. She and her husband Guo Jian (国囝), who is also a musician, have a daughter called Echo (国如一) and a newborn son called Topaz.
Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons