Healer of the whole person

James Williams learns about the art and philosophy of Chinese medicine. Summoned to the forbidden city many centuries ago, a famous Chinese doctor had been called to attend to the Emperor's favourite concubine. Forbidden to look at her or touch her the doctor had to make a diagnosis through a silk screen. Using thread bound to her wrist, the doctor diagnosed her illness by feeling her pulse. After a herbal treatment had been administered, the concubine recovered and the doctor was proclaimed a genius.

This intriguing story is one of the reasons why Dr Guang Xu decided to study a combination of western and traditional Chinese medicine at Shanghai University. Dr Xu grew up during China's cultural revolution and, because of this, her schooling in traditional science subjects was virtually non-existent.

"I didn't learn much modern biology, chemistry and physics at school," she says. "When the revolution finally ended in 1978, I had to study modern science day and night for nearly a year in order to go to university."

A year earlier, having finished high school, she had been sent to work in the countryside as a peasant. "It was a way of teaching those from the city what life was like for 90 per cent of the population in China."

As well as hearing many stories surrounding the healing powers of herbal medicine, as a young child Dr Xu had read her grandparents' ancient herbal books. "The idea that those herbs could cure almost everything fascinated me," she says.

But she did not set out to be a doctor. "I actually wanted to be a writer - to write lovely stories and make people's lives better through the world of imagination." Her family thought that profession too risky given the political climate and she was persuaded to follow a career in medicine.

Fortunately the Cultural Revolution, although setting out to destroy the traditional values and culture of China, did not seek to destroy traditional medicine. "Chairman Mao did respect traditional medicine and also did some good in promoting equality between men and women," she says.

After five years of study, Guang Xu qualified in traditional medicine and began to practise, coming to England in 1989 where she has been running a successful clinic in west London and researching skin complaints in children, her particular area of interest, at Great Ormond Street Hospital.

But is Chinese herbal medicine a science or not? Dr Xu thinks not. "It is more art and philosophy than science - the philosophy of yin and yang and the theory of the five elements of wood, fire, earth metal, and water."

Western medicine often treats only the symptoms, says Dr Xu, but traditional Chinese medicine looks at the whole person and treats the problem as well. "Traditional medicine treats the body as an organic whole whose component parts are interconnected."

Dr Xu uses four methods for diagnosis; inspection of the person, olfaction (listening and smelling) auscultation (listening to sounds made by the body) and pulse taking. After diagnosis a treatment is prescribed. "Every prescription is individual, suited to that person. You could not, for example, buy a remedy off the shelf for a chest cough. That would be bad."

Single herbs may be used for treatments, but most of the prescriptions use combinations of between 10 and 15 different kinds, and these are specially imported for her clinic.

Herbal remedies are not the sole preserve of the Chinese medical community. Western herbal medicine, however, is regarded by Dr Xu as fundamentally different from traditional Chinese medicine. "There is no philosophy for the whole body behind western herbal medicine. The way it is described is totally different, the herbs are not seen in terms of their effect on the whole body."

Many people are now looking to alternative medicine, complementary medicine and traditional Chinese herbal medicine for cures of everything from mild skin rashes to pre-menstrual tension and, more seriously, cancer.

"Traditional Chinese medicine cannot cure everything," says Dr Xu, "but we can help the body to fight some conditions like cancer. Conditions such as ME we can treat successfully even though western medicine still does not know the cause."

Dr Xu does not dismiss the achievements of western medicine. In the fight against disease, she says, "the antibiotic is one of the greatest discoveries of western medicine. For acute and severe infections, antibiotics can work miracles".

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