The Hot Pot Blog

August 26, 2010

Chinese Medicine Under the Bridge

image source

The title above is not just wholly descriptive of a scene I walk by everyday, but bonus!  It would probably be a great name for your next indie rock band or historical novel.

Anyways, I have no pictures of my own for this post.  See: under the bridge.  It’s dark and frankly, it’s a bit creepy.

I’m also a little afraid to ask to take a picture, for fear of misunderstand the response, and accidentally agreeing to pay 500 kuai for some herbal remedy involving a cow skull and snake bile.

That would be sort of awkward “ohhh this is snake bile?  Sorry I was actually looking for some ibprofen, yea….”

Oh and you think I’m exaggerating for affect.  Allow me to indulge in a bit of a descriptive narrative about a scene from daily life here.

Despite an increasing reliance on Western-style medicine, the practice of traditional Chinese medicine is alive and well, fascinating, disturbing and wholly mainstream here.

Its an unbelievably common experience to be walking behind some young, modern woman and find myself starting at a mess of medicinal fire-cup marks peeking from beneath her stylish bouse.

Apparently Gwenyth Paltrow is also into cupping?

image source

Cupping is just one traditional remedy for colds and respiratory infections and, apparently, a host of other complaints. On the whole, it seems relatively harmless and, who knows, perhaps it is effective.  Much like the many, many other Chinese remedies and practices available from pharmacies and clinics here.

Of course, this isn’t a post about traditional Chinese medicine, per se.  Aside from some wikipedia searches light reading, I know very little about the subject.  From what I can tell, Chinese medicine, much like Western medicine, has some fabulous success stories as well as some deeply tragic failings.

So this isn’t a post about Chinese medicine.

It’s just about the scene that I pass under the bridge on the way to my grocery store every week.

And it’s not so much a bridge as a highway overpass.  It’s unlit and quite dark.  It’s a bit dank and wet with water and who-knows-what-liquid-that-is pooling in the potholes and between the cracks in the concrete.

In the heat of the afternoon, you will usually find a few petty-cab drivers sleeping on the cool and dark sidewalk in front of their “vehicles.”

And you will also find a booming trade in traditional Chinese medicinal remedies and treatments.

Let me see if I can pain the picture for you.

I walk down a set of chipped and cracked concrete steps and descend into the cool damp humidity under the bridge.

10 feet from the stairs is a large tattered yellow and white menu of sorts lying on the pavement.  As far as I can tell, this dirty piece of vinyl advertises the remedies available for purchase from the mysterious middle-aged man smoking a cigarette, sitting in the bamboo chair next to the poster.

Much like I imagine palm-readers and voodoo practioners to have, the man in the bamboo chair has an aura of irresistible power and danger.

On one hand, he looks like a million men in Chengdu, a dirty white tank top rolled up to reveal a paunchy Buddha belly, a shaved head to hide the hair loss, a pair of black cloth shoes and maybe a jade pendant hanging around his neck.

On the other hand, when you look first to his eyes and then to his wares, phrases like “dabbles in dark magic” come to mind, wholly unbidden.

The dark, dank setting does little to detract from this impression.  I mean we are, after all, talking about a healer working under a highway overpass.

His wares are what really get me every time though.

Next to the bamboo chair is a large dirty white square of fabric upon which dozens of plastic bottles are carefully arranged.

Upon second glance, you’ll realize that these are not some sort of propriety container, these are recycled water bottles, plucked by some street cleaner from a garbage pile and sold to a middle man who cleans them and then sells them to people like our healer under the bridge.

The labels are long gone and the contents have been replaced with an array of substances ranging in color and viscosity from bootstrap molasses black to urine-sample yellow.  Some are reddish brown, some are nearly translucent with some sort of organic sediment collecting on the bottom.

On a second square of white fabric next to the first, you start to get an idea of what contents of the bottles might be.  Here, arranged neatly in rows and according to some sort of elaborate categorization, are an amazing array of brown, dry, and wizened objects.

In the first row you might find a few short and stubby tree branches.  The amount of stripped bark missing from these branches can give you a good idea of how business is going today.

The next few rows are the domain of the fungi.  As I’ve said before, the Chinese love fungi, love, love, love it.  They have a truly incredible depth of knowledge about the healing powers of different mushrooms and I’m pretty sure some of them are quite miraculous healing agents.

Still, it really is something to see them arranged on this white square of fabric.  Some of the samples are as small as your average porcini mushroom while others approach the size of a regulation basketball.  Some appear to be whole chucks of tree trunks, hacked off in their prime for the purpose of harvesting the massive disks of fungus growing on them.

One row over on the fabric, things get decidedly more interesting.  Here you will find dried snake skins, small animal bones, and skulls.  Nothing is overly large, but then again, we are talking skulls and bones and dead snakes which will soon be ground up and used in various remedies.

No matter how open-minded I try to be, those bottles and bones always call to mind all sorts of nightmares from my childhood.

And yet, I love this scene for it’s intrique, the whiff of unknown danger in the air.

Most times, the healer in the bamboo chair is just sitting around with a couple of friends, smoking some cigarrettes.  At times like this, the whole scene is almost boringly uninterestingly.

But once in awhile I see him using a Bic lighter to adhere glass cups to the back of patrons.

And it always makes me wonder.  Why see this healer, under the bridge?  In this country, you can have Chinese remedies and cupping administered in bright, beautiful, hygienic buildings by healers with many more years of training behind them than their Western medicine Chinese counterparts.

(Western medicine only requires something between and associates and a bachelor’s degree in China, whereas traditional Chinese doctors often  receive very extensive training)

Why go see a man under a bridge when you can get this sort of treatment almost anywhere, in any part of town with the option of a spa treatment or a pedicure afterwards?

I can only imagine 2 reasons: 1) He’s either really cheap and/or 2) He’s really, really good at what he does.

Which lends a further air of mystery to this under-the-bridge operation.  Why is he there?  Why is he successful enough to keep attracting clients?  Where did he learn his craft?  Where does he source his ingredients from?

To be honest, sometimes when I walk down the grey streets, past hundreds of identical buildings and stores, past thousands of people seemingly all preoccupied with the same things, I feel like Chengdu doesn’t have the cultural soul I was expecting when I first moved here.

Chris and I have talked about this a lot.  When you are in India, even in the most modern of spaces, you still know you are in India, it’s in the air, on the faces of the people around you.

In China, sometimes you can forget you are in China, sometimes the realities of this place don’t live up to hype and intrigue.  Certainly there are no mini dragons with the voice of Eddie Murphy running around.

And that’s ok, because the longer I’m here, the more I realize that this place does have soul, it does still have that allure of ancient mystery.

The streets and the air may be grey, but the people are most certainly not.  The buildings may not look “like China” but the people, no matter how many cell phones or fancy cars or fluffy dogs they own, are still fascinating, still soulful, still imbued with ancient traditions and superstitions and beliefs that have evolved over the course of thousands of years.

Which is why the medicine man under the bridge will stay in business, why people will come and pay him to suction cup glass to their backs in hopes of alleviating what hope to be a comon cold but what is more likely TB.

Yesterday, as I crossed under the underpass I saw a policemean on a scooter.  I knew instantly why he was there and what I would see at the other end of the underpass.

Sure enough, four or five paces away there crouched an old women with a bag made of the red, white, and blue plastic used to cover construction sites here.  She was quietly, slowly packing up all of the mushrooms and bones and skulls and snake skins into her bag.  Further down, the plastic water bottles filled with potions were already packed up.  The tattered menu was already rolled up neatly into a corner.

The policeman looked wholly unconcerned, bored even.  Likely he knows someone who’s visited this very healer.  Definitely he knows that tomorrow, this healer will be back in the very same spot.

And I continued on my way, in the back of a three-wheel petty-cab, crossing 8 lanes of traffic against the light and passing an old man wearing woven reed sandals with poof balls on the end.

This is China, ancient and new, bizarre and mundane, all rolled together into one.

0 responses to “Chinese Medicine Under the Bridge”

  1. Chloë says:

    You weren’t kidding about the “descriptive narrative” version of this exposé (I jest), were ya?

    Wow! After reading through this post, I feel like I’ve watched a movie. Thanks for taking the time share all those details!

  2. stmemory says:

    What a great post, and how bizarre! You’ve described everything so well, I can just picture it.

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