The Ugly Side of Traditional Chinese Medicine

©cc by-nc 2.0 Animals Asia

Before evidence-based medicine made its way into East-Asia in the 1800s, the region had developed a set of practices now known as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). TCM is closely related to Taoism, sharing the concepts of Qi and Yin Yang. According to TCM, illness is the result of an imbalance between the elements that make up our body and the universe. In that, it’s actually quite similar to the kind of medicine practiced by the Ancient Greeks and other Western cultures all the way into the 19th century, which was based on balancing the four ‘humours‘ (Yellow bile, Black bile, Phlegm, and Blood).

Excerpt from a 350-year-old herbal medicine guide
Excerpt from a 350-year-old herbal medicine guide

This so-called ‘humourism’ disappeared almost completely with the rise of scientific research. TCM, however, remained popular. In a 1950 speech, Chairman Mao called for expanding the system. He himself didn’t believe in it though. His motives were more pragmatic: in the early years of the People’s Republic of China, doctors were in short supply, so any (pseudo-)medical support was welcomed in rural areas. City folk had long accepted scientific medicine, with influential author Lu Xun writing in 1923: “Chinese doctors are no more than a type of swindler, either intentional or unintentional, and I sympathize with deceived sick people and their families.”

Of course, anyone has the right to choose how to treat their own health. Certain methods of TCM, such as tui na massage or qigong meditational exercise, may well counter stress and other complaints. But there is an aspect to TCM more criminal than deception: it offers a market for wildlife trafficking, poaching, and general animal cruelty.

Traditional Chinese Medicine finds use for approximately 1000 plant and 36 animal species. Of these animal species, many are illegally farmed, and some are outright endangered. China banned the trade in tiger bone and rhino horn in 1993, and TCM practicioners removed these ingredients from the official guidelines. But since then, tiger zoos have popped up all over the country, and in recent years the Chinese government has considered lifting the ban. According to farm lobbyists, the argument to lift the ban is that China should be allowed to treat home-grown tigers as farm animals. The main argument against lifting the ban – apart from moral obligations, is that it would encourage poachers to use this loophole.

Rhino horn seized by Hong Kong customs in 2013
Rhino horn seized by Hong Kong customs in 2013 | ©cc by-nc 2.0 IFAW

Rhino horn is still illegally sold in China, where it is used as an aphrodisiac (which tends to work if smugglers soak the porous horn in viagra). Surprisingly, Vietnam is the bigger market for this product. In the mid-2000s, the country’s nouveau riche went crazy over a rumour that horn powder cured a local politician of cancer. This use of rhino horn doesn’t even appear in TCM, but for a tradition which attributes magical qualities to lumps of human hair (rhino horn is 100% keratin), making it a cure for cancer was but a small leap of the imagination.

Another highly controversial source of TCM is bear bile. In a 2015 report, The Guardian mentions an estimated 12,000 bears are held in bile factories across East and South-east Asia. Most of them are locked up in tiny cages, ready for their bile to be tapped via catheders or open tubes. In 2012, the head of the Chinese Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine said the extraction was “like turning on a tap […] It might even be a comfortable process!” The statement was made in defense of Guizhentang Pharmaceutical, a bile pharma company which has tried several times to go public on the Hong Kong stock exchange.

A moon bear, found on a Chinese bear farm in 2012 ©cc by-nc 2.0 Animals Asia
A moon bear, found on a Chinese bear farm in 2012 | ©cc by-nc 2.0 Animals Asia

Experts seem to agree that bile farming is not even close to comfortable for the bears. Horrible testimonies can be found all over the internet, but for all our comfort, we’ll only mention this witness account of a veterinary surgeon: “Housing and husbandry conditions even in the best bear farms are a far cry from what could be considered even vaguely appropriate. It is my professional opinion that the conditions necessary for long-term bile extraction from live bears, including surgery, are incompatible with the biological, behavioural and psychological needs of the animals under any circumstances. Given that there are many traditional herbal alternatives as well as synthetically produced UDCA there is therefore no justification to continue this cruel practice.”

The alternatives the surgeon mentions focus on ‘ursodiol’, the active ‘ingredient’ in bear bile. It has been chemically synthesized and put to good use in conventional medicinal drugs like ‘Actigall’ to counter liver ailments. And there’s good news for those who favour ‘natural’ alternatives: In 2014, Chinese pharma group Kai Bao Pharmaceuticals announced it had secured funding to research alternatives based on poultry bile. Of course, any alternative stands or falls by the willingness of TCM practicioners to prescribe it. So for now, raising public awareness of the cruelty of animal-based medicine remains the biggest challenge.

Cover image ©cc by-nc 2.0 Animals Asia
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