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Teaching the Cross-Cultural Implications of Herbal Chinese Medicine at TBC

Thousands of years of traditional Chinese medicine practices and knowledge have evolved and continue to evolve. Its effectiveness and simplistic approach are widely debated, as certain Chinese medicinal practices help heal specific conditions while also maintaining your qi*. However, the experimental nature of Chinese medicine is what has made it an inquisitive cultural aspect that draws global interest and participation. 

As a large part of Chinese culture, students can learn the practice and purpose of Chinese medicine at The Beijing Center (TBC) and the medicinal and herbal properties that make it effective in many ways (learn more about our Chinese Medicine course here). In doing so, students have a balanced experience between classroom learning and hands-on learning. 

Our most recent student cohort had the opportunity to visit a local Beijing organization dedicated to cultivating organic herbs and plants that are actively used in Chinese medicine, as well as, Western medicine.

At Yin Yang House, the Beijing herb garden, owner and Buddhist practitioner Thomas, overlooks the growth of over 150 herbs and plants, many of which are commonly used in Chinese medicine. TBC students expressed enthusiasm for seeing how plants and herbs they learned about in class are being cultivated. 

Thomas began the tour by explaining the growth process of herbs for medicinal use. He explained how different plants and herbs are grown in a variety of composts. Most medicinal herbs are perennial plants; therefore, they require fungus-dominated soil compared to annual plants and vegetables that grow best in bacterial soil. Students were shown plants originating from India, North America, Europe, and Asia and how certain plants fit into herbal medicine in China and Western medicine. In China, many Chinese laws direct the harvest of certain plants based on the maturity of their medicinal quality, resulting in years of cultivation before the plants can be used.

A widely known plant in Asian and North American cultivation is the ginseng plant – used as food and medicine. Although more prominent in Chinese and Korean natural remedies, ginseng refers to different plant varieties used in different ways in different cultures. American ginseng works as a relaxing agent, whereas Asian ginseng has stimulating effects. The variety in usefulness and effect is a result of the concentration of active compounds, and in turn, how it affects the body. Ginseng is one example of how cross-cultural cultivation and use define both Western and Asian medicinal practices. 

As explained by TBC Professor Shelley Ochs, a very telling aspect of Chinese medicine’s effectiveness is that plants recognized as having medicinal properties are used globally in natural remedies and medications, eliminating the general idea that these herbs are particular to Chinese medicine. Many of the herbs the students were shown at the herb garden are core components in Western and Asian medicine, such as valerian root grown for its essential oils and used to treat sleep disorders and motherwort used to treat postpartum depression. 

During the class visit, Thomas described the defining aspect of Chinese herbal medicine as the use of multiple plants together in formulas – not single herbs, but rather compound formulas – known as polypharmacy compound formulas. The process through which the herbs go through is called Pao Zhi 炮制 processing, which involves frying the plants in honey or vinegar, or drying them in specific ways, to activate their medicinal properties and prepare the final product. 

Incorporating the study of Chinese Medicine into the TBC curriculum further allows our students to be more informed on what they consume and how to make educated decisions on medicinal treatments they may seek out at some point in their life. Through community involvement and experiential learning, students are able to apply classroom knowledge and see how it functions in the real world, creating a worthwhile academic experience.

*qi: in traditional Chinese Medicine, qi is known as the vital energy that travels through the body at all times.