Friday, March 09, 2007

Traditional healing arts under attack in modern China

Traditional healing arts under attack in modern China

XIKOU, China - The fur is flying, not to mention the acupuncture needles, the herbs and the $15,000-a-pound bull gallstones.

China's ancient healing arts, as integral to national identity as the Great Wall or steamed dumplings, have become embroiled in the country's struggle to balance tradition and modernity.

A professor at a regional university kicked off the controversy in October with an online petition calling for traditional medicine to be stripped from the Chinese constitution. It has a protected status that, in theory, guarantees it equal footing with its Western counterpart.

Zhang Gongyao and fellow critics have blasted Chinese medicine as an often ineffective, even dangerous, derivative of witchcraft that relies on untested concoctions and obscure ingredients to trick patients, then employs a host of excuses if the treatment doesn't work.

For adherents of the 3,000-year-old system, this borders on heresy.

The Health Ministry labeled Zhang's ideas ``ignorant of history,'' and traditionalists have called the skeptics traitors bent on ``murdering'' Chinese culture.

Ironically, the firestorm dovetails with a growing embrace of Chinese medicine abroad as an antidote to the perceived soulless, money-obsessed nature of Western health care.

A Chinese government delegation on a recent visit to California said the United States could surpass China soon as the best place to learn traditional medicine, said Lixin Huang, president of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco, the nation's oldest such graduate program.

Since 1949, the number of traditional doctors trained in China has fallen by nearly half to 270,000, while the number of Western-trained doctors has jumped twentyfold to more than 1.7 million.

Criticism that traditional medicine is not scientific dates centuries. But Zhang's remedies -- an end to national insurance coverage for traditional medicine, rigorous scientific standards and obligatory Western training for traditional doctors -- have hit a nerve at a time when traditional Chinese medicine is increasingly on the defensive.

Although Chinese schools pump out thousands of traditional medicine graduates each year, nearly half never practice -- they chose the specialty because other departments were full.

A common criticism of Chinese medicine involves its often-unregulated ingredients.

``Many herbal medicines considered innocuous are actually very toxic,'' said Fang Zhouzi, a biochemist, columnist and founder of a Web site that targets academic fraud. ``But practitioners and proponents cover this up using various excuses.''

The Food and Drug Administration banned products marketed as Chinese herbal medicine during the 1970s and '80s after they were implicated in several deaths. In 2004, the FDA issued a ban on the herb ephedra after it was linked to heart attacks and strokes.

Chinese traditional experts blame misuse. They point to guan mu tong, which has been used for centuries to treat urinary tract infections. Problems surfaced only when Westerners used it incorrectly as part of a weight-loss therapy, they say.

Nor are Western drugs free of powerful side effects, others counter.

Chinese medicine's use of endangered animal and plant ingredients also has been cause for concern. Officially, China forbids trading in the items, but rising incomes and old habits threaten species worldwide.

Only about 30 Chinese tigers, hunted for their bones and other parts, remain in the wild, experts estimate, compared with tens of thousands a few decades ago. Tiger parts are used for rheumatism and to increase virility.