Integrating Chinese Tradition and Western Medicine


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Dr. Jason T. C. Tu speaks with a deep, calm, husky voice. His slender hands, graced with a jade ring, gesture with openness and authority. His boyish smile and erect stance, perhaps a result of his work as a teacher of tai chi and chi gong, belie his sixty-two years. Little in Dr. Tu’s easy­going demeanor suggests the rigors of his upbringing, education and immigration to the United States in 1988.

Dr. Tu was born in Shanghai in 1936, when China was just emerging from the Great Depression and teetering on the brink of war with Japan. He was born too early, weighing only three pounds and his mother did not survive his birth. With no food or care available, he was sent to a rural village where he was adopted by the local temple. With monks and nuns for parents and a traditional herb shop just next door, he miraculously thrived, even coming through a bout of tuberculosis when he was ten years old—before the availability of penicillin.

When he was twenty-two, Dr. Tu began studies in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in Shanghai, finishing just before the onset of the Cultural Revolution. During that cruel and turbulent time in China’s history, medical doctors fared better than others of the educated class, being allowed to practice their ­profession in the rural villages. Dr. Tu was sent into the countryside to work with and train the “barefoot doctors”—medical practitioners with little or no formal training who depended on folk remedies that had been handed down for centuries.

Because the villages were very poor and medications hard to come by, he and ­others like him combined acupuncture, locally-available herbs, and close observation to treat most conditions. For instance, bad water often resulted in a type of parasite that inhabited and multiplied in the gall bladder, causing intense pain. These he exorcised with three acupressure points and the fruit of a wild plum. A suppurated spider bite would have been treated with crushed dandelion leaves, applied fresh three times a day. Combining his advanced TCM training with traditional country ways was challenging but effective. Such approaches were used even in the cities during the privations of the Cultural Revolution.

The Shanghai years

Returning to Shanghai after the Cultural Revolution, Dr. Tu delved deeply into study and research, including gaining knowledge of Western medicine, and soon rose to the position of chief at one of the city’s major hospitals. In China, doctors in high positions are expected to do at least one research project each year; in a hospital such as his, they are given “one day a week just to think,” he recalls.

His research was broad-ranging and provocative. Drawing molecular structures in the air, he describes the long Chinese tradition of using “poison against poison” (not the same as homeopathy, he is quick to point out). One five-year study he conducted used a concentrated herbal essence with a poisonous constituent to treat chronic bronchitis. He got excellent results. But when he removed just the poisonous constituent, it didn’t work anymore. This study also supports the Chinese practice of using whole herbs and complex combinations in which the many components balance each other.

Another study tested the ability of an herb to stimulate circulation. Cutting an artery in rats’ ears, he measured the speed of the blood flow; after injecting an herbal extract, he measured it again. He was able not only to measure the speed of flow, but the duration of the effect as well. There has been a great deal of serious study of herbs in China, he says, but it tends not to be accepted by the Western medical community.

Coming to the United States

More than 40,000 Chinese nationals immigrate to the United States each year, but it’s not easy for a person of Dr. Tu’s stature to receive permission from his government to leave. Though he had a sponsor—an uncle who had immigrated to Canada twenty years earlier—Dr. Tu had to strike a deal with the Communist Party (of which he was not a member). If he would train a person to replace him as hospital chief, he would be allowed to leave. It took him more than two years to do so. Even so, his daughter Sophie, who had been specially selected to attend a Shanghai “genius school,” was denied exit papers. She and Dr. Tu’s wife, Mei Li, stayed behind until they found an opportunity to leave a few years later.

When Dr. Tu arrived in California in 1988, there was an herb store waiting to employ him. He received a degree from the Academy of Health Sciences in Oakland, which allows him to practice as a licensed acupuncturist and, by extension, as an herbalist. Interestingly, in China an acupuncturist is regarded as a technician; herbal medicine is held in higher esteem.

Today, he has a thriving practice in ­Cupertino, a Bay Area city with a large Chinese population.

Integrating Eastern and Western medicine

To a Westerner accustomed to medicine couched in the language of chemistry and physiology, Traditional Chinese Medicine may seem vague and superstitious. In fact, it’s based on millenia of logic, practice and deep insight.  “Herbal medicine has been used in China for 4,000 years of record. If it doesn’t work, why are there so many Chinese?” Dr. Tu says with a twinkle in his eye.

The underlying principle of TCM is balance: the forces of positive and negative, of yang and yin, heaven and earth, day and night, fire and water, air and earth, exterior and interior of the body. These opposites must be balanced and harmonious. Further, TCM is based on the theory that everything consists of five elements: metal, wood, water, fire and earth. These correspond to five major organ groups: lung, liver, kidney, heart and spleen. (These designations have broad definitions—kidney represents all glands and spleen represents the digestive system, for instance.) Every herb has a unique combination of character (cold, hot, cool, warm), taste (sour, hot, bitter, salty, and sweet) and function.

All of these elements are interrelated, and must be kept in balance and harmony. Eons of practice have resulted in effective diagnostic methods that lead a skilled physician to an appropriate course of herbal medication. Because illnesses are complex, they usually require a compound formulation using a number of substances.

As exotic as these concepts may seem, Dr. Tu finds that Eastern and Western medicine are highly complementary. Chinese medicine, he explains, is treatment-oriented, while Western medicine is ­oriented toward diagnosis and has sophisticated tools and tests for that purpose. In place of blood tests, X-rays, and electroencephalographs, TCM uses questions and observation, smell (for example, diabetics give off a fruity smell, and constipation can cause a metallic odor), pulses, palpatations, and examination of the tongue.

For all its scientific approach, however, Dr. Tu feels that Western medicine is less discriminating in its treatment of an individual patient than TCM. In Western thought, a symptom is a symptom, and a wide variety of patients will receive the same treatment for it. TCM tends to take the patient’s individual situation more into account. For example, he cites the common Western practice of prescribing anti­biotics for a fever, regardless of its cause. Yet for an elderly female patient who was running a high fever, he discovered a low immune response and gave her ginseng and other strengthening herbs so her body could fight off the fever by itself.

He recognizes, too, that even the same patient requires different treatment over the course of an illness. The condition changes, he explains, so why shouldn’t the medication? He typically changes a patient’s formulation every three days.

Many of Dr. Tu’s patients are computer engineers who suffer from headaches and dizziness. He finds that this is often caused by excessive brain usage, which results in a yin deficiency. In China, the same symptoms are more likely to be caused by excess yang; the culture there simply results in a different kind of im­balance. The stresses of Western life also cause a high incidence of serious depression among young Chinese students and engineers. Acupuncture can often serve as emergency stress relief.

The value of prevention

Chinese medicine, like herbal medicine in this country, tends to focus on preventing illness. It’s common for traditional Chinese to go to the doctor routinely when they’re feeling well—to ensure that they stay that way. Thus the value of ginseng and other tonifying herbs in TCM.

But the concept of strengthening the body so it can cure itself applies to serious illnesses as well—including cancer. In the West, the prognosis for liver cancer is four months to a year; in China, it’s not unusual for a liver cancer patient to have more than ten years symptom-free, if diagnosed early. The difference is the use of preventive herbs and other substances to strengthen and tonify the liver instead of chemotherapy, which destroys the body’s immune ­system. Dr. Tu advocates a combination of approaches: radiation therapy to isolate the cancerous area, and TCM to tonify the body and “make it into an army to fight the disease.” He has also used the preventive approach to treat acute hepatitis.

Imagining the future

Dr. Tu works with a number of oncologists, using TCM to treat the side effects of chemotherapy. He has gained permission to visit patients in the hospital and take them herbal drinks to build up their system. He believes that TCM will have a better chance for acceptance and growth in the United States if it’s integrated with Western medicine and if its herbal remedies are controlled in the same way as pharmaceuticals. He recognizes, however, that the research required by the Food and Drug Administration is a daunting obstacle—it’s very costly, and herbs are not patentable. Yet he dreams of pursuing work that might result in cures for major diseases—skullcap for stomach cancer, for instance.

Meanwhile, he tirelessly treats a steady stream of patients, writes for scientific publications, teaches meditation and martial arts, enjoys time with his family. As we leave his office, I ask about the middle initials, T. C., on his diplomas. “Tien Chun,” he explains—“Sky Purity.” A fitting name for a dedicated practitioner of the balanced life, and an inspiring optimist whose personal motto is “Kindness gives you a longer life.”

Dr. Tu’s pharmacoepia includes more than 400 herbs, as well as scores of patented combinations. But Traditional Chinese Medicine isn’t limited to the plant world. Minerals such as sulfur and powdered pearl, animal products such as dried earthworms and sea horses and indescribables such as crocodile bile all have a place in his complex pharmacopoeia. Many traditional Chinese herbs have become mainstays of Western herbalism, however. The list below gives their accepted Western use:

Astragalus Huang-qi (Astragalus membranaceus) An important tonic herb used to fight colds, flu, and minor infections.

Baikal skullcap Huang-qin (Scutellaria bai­calensis) A mild sedative.

Dong quai Dong-quai (Angelica sinensis) For menstrual and menopausal difficulties.

Ephedra Ma-huang (Ephedra sinica) For mild asthma and nasal congestion.

Ginger Sheng-jiang (Zingiber officinale) For indigestion, ­nausea, and motion sickness.

Ginseng Renshen (Panax ginseng) An important tonic herb; useful against fatigue.

Linda Ligon is editorial director of Herbs for Health. Joe Coca is a freelance photographer in Fort Collins, Colorado. They are grateful to Dr. Tu’s daughter, Sophie, also a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, for her help in translating her father’s comments.

Additional reading

Foster, Steve, with Yue Chongxi. Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 1992.

Hyatt, Richard. Chinese Herbal Medicine: An Ancient Art and Modern Healing Science. New York: Thorson Publishers, Inc., 1978.

Warner, J.-W. Fan, M.D. A Manual of Chinese Herbal Medicine: Principles and Practice for Easy Reference. Boston: Shambala, 1996.

Williams, Tom, Ph.D. Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive System for Health and Fitness. Rockport, Maine: Element Books, 1996.