Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) can be a bewildering science to make sense out of, and not just for foreigners. Prescriptions offered by TCM gurus are increasingly thought of as archaic to today’s younger Chinese, but perhaps that’s because they’re not old enough yet to soak up the real benefits of the practice.
Catching myself at that uncertain hour between very late and very early, I’ve often stumbled upon elderly Chinese in the midst of rigorous kicks, swivels and dances. One day, after enough head scratching to create a small bald patch on my scalp, I contacted Dr. He Jinsen of the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in hope that he could give some answers to feed my curiosity.
Yesterday I published a list with CNNGo (appearing with the overly exaggerated title, “10 TCM moves to help you live forever” — a choice I assume was for the sake of generating extra hits) that offers some explanation to why elderly Chinese jump into an array of calisthenics and dances hours before most of the white-collared working class get up for their morning coffee.
My interview with Dr. He was conducted off of West Nanjing Road in an outpatient acupuncture clinic accented with a light-brown bathroom-tile facade — most likely the same kind gathered from the surplus stock contractors scooped up decades before as economical building materials. Me and my translator Abby, a TCM student from Taipei, were lead into a large off-white room just beyond the main corridor. The area was divided with wobbly brown dividers that gave privacy — at least the sense of it — to acupuncture patients on beds behind them. Several doctors (I assume so because of their freshly bleached gowns) sat at two wooden tables pressed up against the wall rapidly jotting down notes in the illegible script only a medical doctor can produce. I was instantly greeted and offered a chair in between two of the oldest looking doctors that were too busy to take their eyes off what they were so vigorously spelling out.
After he dotted his last sentence, Dr. He looked up at me and gave me a salutational nod that seemed to say: Hello, and where should we begin? I jumped right into the aim of the interview, occasionally leaning on my translator, mostly to work out what the doctor was saying to guarantee no mistranslations.
Abby, being a bit of TCM scholar herself, was surprised that I had seen some of the exercises: people hitting trees, walking around and shouting — she had never noticed them. This could be, of course, because she is from Taipei, but nonetheless the practices would go dutifully unnoticed if you did not wake up at dawn and peer through the certain al fresco locals of choice (mostly parks and sidewalks). A women who just got done with her acupuncture treatment chimed in from behind, “I’ve seen people hitting trees before. I don’t do that though!” Dr He then promptly noted that Dr. He says that it “doesn’t really help, and it might not be good for the tree either.”
Even more surprising to Abby was that shouting, according to Dr. He, was “good for the heart and lungs.” It’s not she didn’t give a hoot; she just didn’t get it because the key benefits from most TCM exercises are done to aid aging organs. In time, she admits, perhaps some of them will be useful, even if you look slightly ridiculous while doing them.