A crowd gathers at a Shanghai hospital, queuing for remedies made with plant mixtures and animal parts, including scorpions and freeze-dried millipedes – medicines that China hopes will find an audience overseas.
With a history going back 2,400 years, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is deeply rooted in the country and remains popular despite access to Western pharmaceuticals. Now, the authorities are hoping to modernise and export the remedies, but they face major obstacles.
A veritable forest of medicinal plants surrounds patients waiting at Yueyang Hospital’s pharmacy. Some leave with boxes of pills, others take away plastic sachets filled with herbal extracts.
Mr Lin Hongguo, a 76-year-old pensioner, has bought herbal remedies that he will boil to make a tea to treat his “slow-beating heart”.
“I prefer it to Western medicines. It’s not about the cost; it’s because it works well,” he said.
Traditional medicine is subsidised in China and is cheaper than Western medicine.
It consistently makes up one-quarter of the country’s pharmaceuticals market – even as China increasingly opens up to modern medicine.
The World Health Organisation will next year include a chapter on traditional medicine in its International Classification of Diseases – a tome of reference for medical trends and global health statistics.
China hopes the inclusion will spur global recognition of its traditional remedies as it seeks to export them.
But Beijing still faces significant hurdles, not least the fact that TCM focuses on tailoring treatment to each individual, which means different people with the same condition can be prescribed different medicines and dosages.
“It’s like a painting; it’s composed differently each time, while Western medicine is more similar to photography”, with its standardised products, said Dr Wang Zhenyi, a proctologist at Yueyang Hospital.
That is the crux of China’s challenge in gaining overseas acceptance: Its traditional medicine is largely incompatible with modern clinical trials that require an identical product to be tested on a large number of patients.
But Chinese medical professionals still feel the quest for acceptance abroad is worth the effort.
“Medicine is still a very young science, with many unknowns. You increase your ability to heal if you know both Western and Chinese medicine,” said Dr Wang. “It’s the result that counts.”