Chinese Doctor Visit & Geeking out

We’ve kicked off our research practicum and anthropology readings, and that means a lot of cultural study. It’s one thing to read about East Asian worldview and thought process, but being able to read it and see it in action at the same time makes for an infinitely richer learning experience. The people and this place are starting – ever so slowly – to make sense. It’s such a blessing that our practicum supervisor is willing to invite us in to areas of the culture like this.

Observing Traditional Chinese Medicine
As part of our research practicum we have weekly debriefing interviews with our on-site supervisor to discuss our readings, research, and experiences. Tuesday he had an appointment scheduled with a traditional Chinese doctor and suggested that we come to observe the proceedings. We really appreciate him inviting us to something like this; aside from doctor visits being personal, he knows that Westerners typically look down on this kind of thing. It was also his suggestion to debrief over a hot-pot lunch afterward. That’s my style of education!

First Impressions

Walking in off the sidewalk, the smell of the medicine was the most immediately noticeable thing. It wasn’t bad at all, but it is distinct. We walked past the counter where they mix the various herbs and ingredients to a waiting area. The walls and doors were wood-paneled with a few calligraphy works here and there. A large TV was playing the Discovery Channel (it just happened that the one about the infamous penis-gourd tribe was on when we walked in). There were some nice woodwork designs in various places, beautiful orchids, a few technical-looking medical reports showing the effects of certain traditional medicines on patients’ organs, and a testimony board of people his treatments had healed – some that the western-style doctors had given up on. Judging from the appearance, this guy seemed to be doing pretty well. He’s been practicing for about 30 years and is considered a master.

Maybe 15 people were waiting. Everyone except for one teenage boy was grandparent age or older. Our supervisor was easily the youngest and strongest-looking patient. Pretty much all of them noticed us and our supervisor got some funny comments about coming in with wài guó rén. We ended up waiting for about an hour, so we had lots of time to ask questions and have him explain things. All of it fit with our readings.


There are four aspects of a traditional doctor exam: observe, “smell” (in a multi-sensory kind of way), ask, and 切, which he couldn’t translate. First, at a desk in the waiting room, the doctor had him hold an electrode while touching another electrode to various places on his hands, wrists, feet, and ankles that correspond to internal organs. The readings from the machine were recorded on the form you see above – the columns indicate organs while the rows mark the reading. Feet, hands, and ears especially are said to contain these corresponding points: it’s not uncommon for people to address internal complaints with foot massage (apparently rather painful), or to walk barefoot on small stones in the park for health. Some parks have diagrams describing which parts correspond to what. It took the doctor about one minute to gather the readings he wanted and check his pulse (using both hands).

Contrasting Eastern and Western Medicine

After this the three of us waited for about an hour, during which time we saw a woman pay $11,000 NTD ($375 CDN) for a bag of herbal medicine. Our supervisor explained that unlike Western medicine, which seeks to isolate and treat a specific problem (“attacking the one place only”), traditional Chinese medicine is more concerned with addressing the environmental imbalances both inside and outside the body that are causing the problem in the first place. The substances within the body must be brought back into proper relationship, or balance, with each other, the body as a whole, and the daily environment of the person. Western medicine is more specific, discrete, “tunnel-vision”-oriented; traditional Chinese medicine is more contextual, holistic, and “big picture”-oriented. He mentioned that for surgery people will go to Western-style doctors, but for most everything else they want the long-term fix of the traditional approach. Traditional medicine prescriptions are slower to take effect, but are considered less harmful (more natural) and better in the long run.

I asked about a man there who was wearing a bracelet – a “niàn zhú” (sp?) – around his wrist that I knew to be a sort of talisman (he was the only one in there that I noticed had this sort of thing). Our supervisor drew a distinction between those kinds of things, which he referred to as accessories and religious business inventions, and Chinese medicine. You couldn’t buy things like that at the doctor’s office; that kind of thing comes from the folk-remedy shops in the night markets.

In the Doctor’s Office

His number finally came up. We followed him past everyone (and their stares and good-natured comments) and through the office door. Inside looked more like a regular office than an examination room. There was a desk to the left with an extra chair beside it, and two chairs off to the right backed by a large-ish atrium filled with plants and flowers. More orchids, too. Two thumbs up for atmosphere. We waited off to the side.

The doctor checked his pulse again with both hands. They talked and our supervisor said something to him about sleeping (so much for our listening comprehension!). The doctor had him stand up and turn around. While holding onto his leg, the doctor pushed with his thumb really hard along his spine. More questions and answers. He checked his blood pressure. After saying some more things and writing a prescription, we left.

The diagnosis? “The fire in your heart is too strong.” Chinese doctors have a bank of descriptive terms like this for specific conditions. Our supervisor described this as, “not overheating” but basically just too stressed and exhausted.

The visit cost $1,200 NTD ($41 CDN), and with the medicine (which he would pick up later) the total could easily hit $5,000 NTD ($170 CDN).

From there it was off to a hot-pot lunch before Jessica and I split for the 3pm English tour and the National Palace Museum.

Geeking out
Don’t you wonder how the heavily Confucian Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.) could not only produce art depicting noblewomen playing polo but also China’s only female emperor? How can you be big on Confucianism and push women’s lib at the same time? Anyway, we made our second trip to the National Palace Museum in time for the English tour. There were four of us plus the guide, an Aussie, and we had a fascinating two hours. Doing that two or three more times should cement the general order Chinese history into our brains. And they change the exhibits every month!

7 thoughts on “Chinese Doctor Visit & Geeking out”

  1. Hey, I went to a Reflexologist last week, and she discovered my extreme sensitivity at the point in the foot that correlates to my kidney. That would explain the sharp pain I’ve been having in my left back. So I have been downing the Cranberry juice lately!

  2. That’s a good example of how cultural influence goes both ways. Sure, there’s lots of Mando-pop that sounds like Chinese Britney Spears, but you just paid someone who looked at your foot and decided your kidney is messed up. These two examples might seem a little superficial, but cultural values piggy-back on stuff like this.

  3. you know what’s weird? yesterday houston and i went to b-ham city centre to the bull ring. it’s basically a shopping mall on drugs – picture the combination of about 5 regular size US malls connected together. we had a lot of fun exploring, needless to say.
    back to what was weird though – we saw about 4 of these types of shops in the mall – traditional medicine shops..they had all the herbs and the same chart – although the exam rooms were hidden. how strange is that?

    we miss you!

  4. I think some of the more occult Mexican traditionaly medicine that I see around here is closer to what you are talking about than American medicine. They seem to seek a wholistic, natural route to integral health. Often that includes manipulating and balancing the spiritual realm as well, but not always.

  5. yeah, when we were in Vancouver last time we found a Chinese herbal shop in Metrotown that looked just like the shops here, only with better lighting and fancier display cases. But it had the same rows of the same big jars with the same who-knows-what in them. Don’t know how many whities shopped there, though. Metrotown is known for its porportionately large Asian population. Is it bad to say whities?

    Brian – I don’t know how neat and clean those categories are over here: “spiritual” and “medicine” or “biology.” A major cognitive difference between the West and Far East is the Western obsession with analyzing all things into distinct categories according to their discrete characteristics. This can seem simplistic to Chinese, apparently… Typical Eastern thought (as I understand it right now) would view causality as too complex and identity as too fluid for tight categories and labelling. I suspect that regarding medicine and spirituality, the Chinese might draw their category lines in different places than we would – if they draw them at all – and the lines between their categories wouldn’t be as “thick” and immovable as ours – if that makes sense. They would typically comprehend greater complexity in the relationship between these categories and wouldn’t differentiate them as distinctly as we do – not because Chinese are bad at analysis but because they typically assume that things are more complex than we do.

  6. Actually, the Tang dynasty was not heavily Confucian. Certainly heavy compared to a modern Western world view, but really heavy Confucianism didn’t settle in until later-Tang, Song and Ming dynasties. I think it’s reflected in the dress of the time-period, as well as the cultural norms and literary flowering. Tang is actually recognized as one of the least Confucian of the Confucian-periods. Anyway, I happen to be highly critical of Confucianism, which makes me highly-biased, but I certainly think that Chinese society and political freedoms suffered under the stifling Confucian climate even more during certain Chinese eras. But, that has nothing to do with Chinese Medicine so…

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