Integrating Chinese Tradition and Western Medicine

| September/October 1998

  • Dr. Jason Tu fills his Cupertino, California, office with healing energy and good cheer.

  • Photography by Joe Coca
  • Dr. Tu's wife, Mei Li, weighs herbs for a compound formulation.
  • A pharmacy in San Francisco’s Chinatown
  • Is among the most highly prized.
    Photo by Joe Coca
  • Contains hundreds of herbs and potent medicines.
    Photo by Joe Coca
  • Because most Chinese remedies contain many active ingredients, patented formulations such as these are popular and convenient.
    Photo by Joe Coca

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.



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