by Dr. Zhuoling Ren
Some time ago, a patient brought a book to my attention that he had discovered. The book is titled The Importance of Living and was written by the modern Chinese philosopher, novelist, and educator Lin Yutang. It’s a calm reflection on how we might live our lives. The other day, I took this book off the shelf to re-read a couple of essays and found a short but interesting one on food and medicine.
As I was reading through this delightful essay, I didn’t know whether I was reading about medicine, cooking, or philosophy. Yutang wove these together into a view that described, to a great extent, and more poetically than medical texts, the essence of traditional Chinese medicine.
Food and medicine come from the same source. We need to do it right.
“Taking the broader view of food as nourishment, the Chinese do not draw any distinction between food and medicine. What is good for the body is medicine and, at the same time, food.” He himself pointed out this confusion of a subject when he said, “We have to, therefore, congratulate the Chinese people on their happy confusion of medicine and food. This makes their medicine less of a medicine, but makes their food more of a food.”
Chinese material medicine consists of three components: plants, minerals, and animal parts. I’m always trying to accept the wrong, or inaccurate, differentiation that people make when I hear them refer to tea as Chinese medicine or hear them talking about Chinese medicinal herbs. For as I noted above, it is, or can be, a combination of these different components.
In discussing differences in viewing foods between the West and China, Yutang wrote that he was suspicious of the Western butcher who killed pigs. He felt that the butcher was throwing away all the parts of the animal that have the greatest nourishing food value. For example, in Chinese medicine there is the view that animal kidney is good for human kidney and animal liver is good for human liver, etc.
Prevention is more important than treatment. TCM does it the best.
An early medical writer, Sun Simiao, wrote in the 6th century, “A true doctor first finds out the cause of the disease, and having found that out, he tries to cure it first by food. When food fails, then he prescribes traditional Chinese medicine.” Modern science has only recently realized what has been a part of traditional Chinese medicine for centuries – the importance of diet.
In my opinion, we should treat certain conditions of disease first by thinking about how food can be used. And then, if food is not powerful enough to affect the desired result, we should then choose Chinese medicine as a treatment. If this still isn’t strong enough, then we might think about combining it with Western medicine. We should try to be as gentle and as natural as possible to the body.
Many of my patients have been surprised about how Chinese medicine has helped them get off drugs. This is not only possible, it is also very important. If we can heal the body from severe depression, insomnia, and even some infections with gentle herbal medicine instead of strong drugs, it will have a far less invasive effect on the body.
When my son was three years old, he suffered from a severe case of pneumonia. With his temperature at 40 degrees centigrade, powerful antibiotics would, generally, be the first choice. But I prescribed some Chinese herbal medicine for him, made it into a bitter “tea” and had him drink this for about a week. His pneumonia became totally under control. He continued taking herbal medicine for a few more days and was completely cured.
In another example, I mentioned to a patient’s great surprise the other day a treatment for cold and cough that consisted of a meal that included nourishing soup of mushrooms, chicken, herbs, etc. along with steamed pears as dessert. A cold medicine prescription, or a delicious and tasty meal? I thought, Yutang would have said, “Yes, a true combination of both,” but he would have added a prescription including a peaceful mind and restful body putting the whole “universe” in a positive state.
So, paying attention to what we eat daily to balance our body’s systems is a tradition in Chinese family cooking. Also, the Chinese medicine doctor always gives patients advice about how to prevent diseases according to the individual’s condition.
“For Chinese medicine essentially agrees with the most up-to-date Western medicine in thinking that, when a man’s liver is sick, it is not his liver alone but the entire body that is sick. After all, all that medicine can do comes down to the essential principle of strengthening our vital energy, through acting on this most highly complicated system of organs and fluids and hormones called the human body and letting the body cure itself.”
“Instead of giving patients aspirin tablets, Chinese doctors would therefore ask them to take large bowls of medicinal tea…and instead of taking quinine tablets, the patients of the future world might conceivably be required to drink a bowl of rich turtle soup with mushrooms, cooked with pieces of cinchona bark. The dietetics department of a modern hospital will have to be enlarged, and the future hospital itself will very nearly resemble a sanatorium-restaurant.
Eventually we have to come to a conception of health and disease by which the two merge into each other, when men eat in order to prevent disease instead of taking medicine in order to cure it.
At the time of what Yutang talked about regarding Chinese medicine and food would not have been accepted in the West. Yet, thinking about these ideas 70 years later we find them, more and more, to be what people are searching for and accepting as an alternative to previously held ideas about food and medicine. Yutang’s ideas are still so significant today to the importance of living healthy.
Photo: picjumbo.com / Viktor Hanacek