My recent interest in TCM was prompted by this article, which tells of a mother bear killing her cub then herself in order escape a Chinese bile farm. Setting aside the debate on the relative intelligence of bears, I became more interested in the bile farm itself. Apparently, these are places where bears are confined to tiny cages so that their gall bladder bile can be harvested for its obvious magical properties. There are an estimated 11,000 bears being subjected to this treatment in China and Vietnam.
|Penis on display in a Chinese market.|
And when the animals being threatened are less cute and cuddly, their alleged health 'benefits' actually turn out to be wholly detrimental to the patient (as if doing nothing wasn't bad enough). Beetles, centipedes, leeches, scorpions, and hornets' nests have all been prescribed as treatments for anything from seizures to constipation. Surprise surprise - these are toxic! Boy howdy, I never would've reckoned eating scorpions was a bad idea. Keep in mind this is completely unlike antidotes for snake venom, which are administered in a careful and consistent fashion by medical professionals.
There are a number of TCM 'treatments' that do not involve any sort of animal parts, of course. I would assume most of you are probably familiar with acupuncture, in which large needles are inserted into mystical chi points in order to realign your karma (or something like that). And if you're reading this blog, you're probably not likely to believe that for a second. Indeed, the National Council Against Health Fraud concluded in 1990 that "theory and practice are based on primitive and fanciful concepts of health and disease that bear no relationship to present scientific knowledge."
|Gua Sha in action.|
Would it be unfair of me to deride the whole of TCM based on these few dramatic examples? I don't think so. For comparison, how well does the ancient Greek '4 humors' approach towards medicine stand up to modern scrutiny? Not all that well. And as it turns out, the Chinese philosophy behind their traditional medicine is very similar, assigning five mystical elements to organs in the body. The fact of the matter is that all of these remedies are thousands of years old and based on tradition and superstition, not science.
So what's going on here? I thought the Chinese were mostly atheists, with some leaning towards Taoism or Buddhism. How could there be such a market for this superstitious garbage? I can't say for sure, but I'm willing to venture a guess that this is an industry being kept alive primarily in non-urban China (home to 53% of the population, approx. 700 million people) where educational and medical standards are already low. In the end this is merely indicative of a common trend in all of human society. Where education and stability fail to take root, superstition and violence will thrive.
*I can already see this coming so I suppose I should issue a disclaimer: I am not a vegetarian, and given that I'm aware of the current state of animal treatment as it relates to the food preparation industry I'm in an awkward position to judge another culture for the way they treat animals. I can, however, draw a couple distinctions. The first is that food preparation in the US has the unarguable social benefit of feeding millions of people, whereas TCM is completely and totally ineffective. The second is the difference between common domesticated animals (what we eat here in the US) and wild animals facing extinction in a delicate ecosystem (like tigers or rhinos in Asia).