Integrating Chinese Tradition and Western Medicine

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Dr. Jason Tu fills his Cupertino, California, office with healing energy and good cheer.
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Dr. Tu's wife, Mei Li, weighs herbs for a compound formulation.
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A pharmacy in San Francisco’s Chinatown
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Is among the most highly prized.
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Contains hundreds of herbs and potent medicines.
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Because most Chinese remedies contain many active ingredients, patented formulations such as these are popular and convenient.

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.

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