TCM and Covid-19 – Food, remedies and recipes: joined-up thinking
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Questions for the debate [coming soon]
TCM: Dangerous pleasures, gentle home remedies?
Introduction to the issues
While there have been a variety of theories related to the transmission of Covid 19 to humans, some indicting laboratories studying viruses in Wuhan, the main zoonotic disease thread still seems to lead to the wet market in Wuhan. The wet market, like others of its kind, apparently was selling wild animals, typically bats and snakes, wild animal horns etc, to satisfy the Chinese market for animal stuffs as medicine. The trade certainly draws on 2000 years of Chinese history to underwrite its culinary and medical traditions. But underlying this trade lie wider global changes that are driving the pandemic outbreaks: urbanisation and rapid development drive people further into underdeveloped areas, increasing encounters with animals. Those species that survive the human encounter such as rats and bats are more likely to host potentially dangerous pathogens that can make the jump to humans.
Rhinoceros and deer horns, tiger bone, and bear gall are not implicated in the transmission of disease, but they are all animal products that carry with them the symbolism associated with the power of the animals themselves. Many of these products are destined for the aphrodisiacs market for elderly men with erectile dysfunction. It is believed that the more rare the species, the more potent it is likely to be. These links to sympathetic magic persist in the popular imagination. Some of these products are also very likely to have a therapeutic effect that was established empirically over long periods. But times have changed and the uses, particularly of endangered species, are clearly outdated and inappropriate in these days when the planet’s biodiversity is dwindling so fast.
But are all the myriad dietary prohibitions and recommendations the stuff of old wives’ tales, the vestiges of a vanishing and irrational past? To the modern eye, Chinese dietary traditions might seem over-burdened with a history of ritual, religion, sexual lore, and magic. To me there are many truths to be found within that history. Those who seek precedents for modern science in early Chinese empirical knowledge have reason to believe that the Chinese diet included remedies for beri beri, goitre, night blindness, and rickets, linking symptoms and specific remedies. Many people will be familiar with the story of qinghao 青蒿 (artemisia annua) transforming from a herb for ‘intermittent fever’ in the pre-modern materia medica to artemisinin, the magic bullet of choice for treating and preventing malaria – the Nobel Prize winning success story grounded in data mining the ancient texts for modern drugs.
Chinese dietary lore is not so much a fixed set of beliefs as a mobile set of shared social practices within which ordinary people can claim a certain expertise, and simultaneously consolidate individual and community identities. In an authoritarian state which has quite effective control over the everyday lives of its citizens, caring for those people that are inside the family and the friendship group is a very effective way to reclaim one’s autonomy from the sanitary police. It is working particularly well for elderly communities who share their gentle remedies and how to make them through smartphone-based short videos (duan shipin 短视频) , a selection of which we will make available online before the conference. This is not a marginal practice. By the end of 2017, there were 334.1 million active users of short video apps in a month. Common topics of the short videos shared among retired people include lifestyle guidance and tips and recipes for longevity and old age. These recipes rarely include exotic animal products, and are much more likely to give instructions for tonic soups and congees made, for example, of beans, herbs and goji berry.
The state also has a vested interest in its traditions. It has really ‘never been modern’ (Latour 1991). Traditional Medicine is a matter of national pride (and important economically), promoted by Xi Jinping. According to the Chinese State Council 90% of the Covid-19 patients in mainland China have used TCM. There are impressive claims made about efficacy and even if they are exaggerated, there is corollary evidence that there was a run on some of the remedies that the state was promoting and they completely sold out. Of those four or five most popular remedies for Covid, none contained animal ingredients except for the ox gall stones in Angong niuhuang wan. All the others were herbal and mineral remedies, and include powerful and potentially toxic ingredients such as mahuang 麻黃 – Ephedra spp. (containing ephedrine) which promotes sweating and expels fever, ban xia 半夏, which is drying of cold and damp in the body, and others such as the aforementioned malaria remedy qinghao 青蒿 (artemisa annua) for clearing heat and damp. Others are directed towards expelling toxins etc. Expelling toxins, clearing heat, cold and damp are different strategies for treating Covid.