tcm_diagnose (1)

Three days in Beijing, two traditional Chinese doctors, and one good night’s sleep


The traditional Chinese doctor took my hand and pressed three fingers against the radial artery on my wrist. I took a deep breath, as she titled her head downward to concentrate on my pulse. “Do you have a sore throat?” my guide translated for the doctor. I shook my head. She focused again. Then she spoke to my guide for several minutes, making me feel left out my own diagnosis, not to mention fear the worse.

My guide, a warm-hearted Chinese man in his mid-thirties, turned to me and delivered the diagnosis. “She says you have too much fire.” I touched my forehead, not feeling hot. “A fever?” I asked. More talking in Chinese. They began laughing and I forced a smile. “No, no—the doctor says the fire might be from being in a new country.”

But it wasn’t culture shock. I was stressed because I had just quit my job to carry out a rejected Fulbright/National Geographic “Digital Storytelling” fellowship, a project that focused on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which included a broad range of 2,000-year-old medical practices, such as acupuncture, Tui Na massage, tai chi and qigong, dietary therapy and herbal medicine.

And so I couldn’t sleep.

My first night in Beijing, I awoke at 3:45 AM. When I woke up the next morning at 4:00 AM, I tiptoed into my hostel’s common area, surprised to see a young Chinese girl clicking through webpages at the front desk.

“What are you working so early?” I asked.

She rubbed her eyes. “I lost my sleep.”

I had also lost my sleep, and I hoped it would come back soon.      

I went looking for my sleep with Ziming, a medicinal chemist at my Fulbright application’s host institution, the Institute for Materia Medica in Beijing. Our first stop was Tongrentang, a traditional herbal pharmacy founded in 1669. Ziming led me through the front doors, past pharmacists in white coats who were standing behind glass counters, packing bags with herbal remedies for Chinese suffering from minor health issues, such as a fever, headache or cold. Tongrentang is the largest producer of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The interior resembles a CVS, though instead of melatonin and hand sanitizers on the shelves, there are oddly shaped plants and herbs and alien-looking animal parts. All known for their medicinal properties, the twisted roots and mushrooms, antlers and horns, ants and scorpions emit potent smells, ranging from pleasant swirls of ginger to pungent aromas of decaying material.

There are over 13,000 medicinal substances used in China and over 100,000 herbal recipes recorded in the ancient literature; I told Ziming about my insomnia and suggested we look for an energy elixir. He led me up the stairs and we arrived at Ginseng, an herb that looked like pumpkin seeds. “Good for energy, but expensive,” Ziming said. I converted the price—$150 Yuen was 23 American dollars—which seemed reasonable.

“Something else?” Ziming offered.

“Any herbal medicines for sleep?” It was quite American of me—something to bring me up, something to bring me down, but Ziming led me to the first floor where he exchanged rapid-fire conversation with a pharmacist, and then flipped through a notebook with lists of traditional drugs. The pharmacist traced her finger to a string of Chinese characters. “Tongren Anshen Wan,” Ziming translated. “A calming agent.” The woman behind the counter retrieved a rectangular yellow box that contained eight small balls, each composed of ten medicinal Chinese herbs that relaxed the body by “nourishing the blood” and “boosting Qi.” Qi translates as “breath” or “air,” but figuratively represents the body’s “life force.”

I reached for my wallet, but the pharmacist shook her head. “You need a prescription from a traditional Chinese doctor,” Ziming said.

“Can we see one?”

Ziming wasn’t sure, but he spoke with the receptionist in the waiting room adjacent to the pharmacy. She told him that I needed an ailment… and money.

“Insomnia,” I said, handing the receptionist 100 Yuen ($15). She hesitated, then printed a ticket for me.

We sat on a bench outside the doctor’s office, concealed by a thick red curtain. On the wall beside the curtain was a plague with a headshot of the traditional doctor, a middle-aged woman, wearing a firm expression, black rectangular glasses and tightly pulled back hair. The curtain moved aside and an elderly man stepped out, holding his prescription on a sheet of paper. Ziming peeked into the room and then waved me over.

The inside didn’t have the sterile feel of an American doctor’s office. Tucked in the corner was a charming granite sink with gold fixtures and flowers etched on the side. Above a bureau in the back was a cabinet with a black and white photograph of a Chinese pagoda painted on the glass. The doctor was seated at a mahogany desk, across from an eager apprentice. Ziming briefed the doctor in Chinese, telling her that I was a writer who was interested in her craft, one who had also slept less than eight hours since his arrival.

The doctor smiled warmly. I relaxed, feeling the urge to leave a comment card after the session which would say that the doctor’s headshot hardly reflected her pleasant bedside manner. The examination began. The doctor looked me over to get an impression of my exterior, as it held clues to my interior. She pointed to my mouth. “Stick out your tongue,” Ziming said. A healthy tongue is pink, flat and wet. If I had a cold, for instance, the doctor would observe a pale tongue, spotted with red dots and teeth marks at the edges. She inspected my tongue and nodded with approval.

It was then that she examined my pulse and told me that I had “too much fire,” a diagnosis that I didn’t understand. But Traditional Chinese Medicine can be unintelligible like that, even for the Chinese. Flummoxed himself, Ziming later consulted a traditional doctor on my behalf. In an email, Ziming wrote that the “fire” likely referred to “internal heat.” There’s “good” fire that provides strength and energy, but also “bad” fire associated with inflammation. Fire was also figurative. “A man with a big fire” could symbolize an angry or spirited man, whereas “a man with a small fire” might represent a timid or meek one.

Ziming presented the Ginseng to the doctor. She turned the bag around in her hands and chuckled. Ziming explained the humor. Most herbal medications are imported from Asia, but the Ginseng I had bought was sourced from the United States, and it amused her that I would be bringing it back home. Then she explained that it wasn’t wise that a man with too much fire would soon be supplementing with an energy stimulant.

“Wait until winter before you take this, when it’s colder,” Ziming said.

And I had calmed down, I presumed.

The doctor’s face brightened when Ziming presented the Tongren Anshen Wan, which, I learned, wasn’t principally a sleep agent, more like an anti-anxiety medication, prescribed to “quiet the spirit,” Ziming told me.

Just what the doctor ordered, I thought, as she scribbled a prescription on a notepad.

Ziming and I then took a taxi to the Hospital of Acupuncture of Moxibustion. A traditional doctor and acupuncturist met us in the hallway, wearing a white coat and dark-rimmed glasses. He led us to a secluded section of the hospital where he was caring for four patients lying in beds, each undergoing traditional Chinese treatments.

The doctor lifted his chin toward an empty bed. “He’s asking if you would like to try,” Ziming said. I glanced at the acupuncture needles stuck in patients’ limbs and the smoke rising from incense-like tubes on their chests. They were routine treatments, but they looked invasive, and I wasn’t exactly eager to go under the knife. But a man will do just about anything for a good night’s rest, so I climbed into the bed.

Knowing that I was having trouble sleeping, the doctor retrieved acupuncture needles from a stainless steel cart. “Good for poor sleep,” he said, and then tapped a needle into the crown of my scalp. It was unexpected, but perhaps only as unpleasant as the needle prick experienced when giving blood. The doctor moved around my body mechanically, placing two needles on each side of my neck, two in each wrist and two in each ankle.

“Fifteen minutes,” Ziming informed me. I was told that the needles stimulated the meridian system, a complex network of psychic channels through which Qi flows. The procedure wasn’t especially painful, more disconcerting, particularly when the doctor repositioned a needle deeper in my wrist; I had to keep my arm absolutely still, less I would drag tiny tendons against the steel.

Following acupuncture was a procedure known as Scrape Therapy. I removed my shirt and sat at the edge of the bed. The doctor vigorously scraped my upper back with a comb-like tool. Supposedly, the treatment helped clear toxins from my body by stimulating blood flow. Ziming said, “Scrape therapy also relaxes the cervical vertebrae,” which are often stiff from sitting at a desk for long periods. It was a rather hostile procedure made even more distressing after the doctor tilted a hand-held mirror so that I could see my back, which had become a battlefield of bright red streaks. “The redness should go away in three-to-four days,” Ziming assured me. “But please call me, if they don’t.”

I was then instructed to flip onto my stomach for the next treatment, known as Cupping. The doctor rolled over a cart holding six palm-sized glass cups. One at a time, he brought a cup near my upper back, positioned a lit match at the cup’s opening to remove the oxygen, and then quickly inverted it onto my skin. Each cup created a tight seal, drawing my skin upward. “It’s meant to mobilize blood and energy,” Ziming said. It was the first relaxing procedure, so I closed my eyes for next ten minutes until the doctor popped off the cups, leaving behind dark red circular welts.

For the fourth procedure called Moxibustion, the doctor fetched two cigar-shaped cylinders and erected them near my belly button. He used a match to ignite the cylinders’ contents, known as moxa, a flammable substance from a dried plant, typically mugwort, which is used medicinally in Asia. The heat, which at times became searing, was a method for stimulating blood flow by warming a region of the body. “When applied to the stomach it can help soothe constipation and ease digestion,” Ziming said. I was relieved to see that the procedure hadn’t scarred my body.

I was delighted to learn that the final treatment was Tui Na massage, which is “Extremely good for a tired body and spirit,” according to Ziming. The doctor performed unique massage techniques, including the rolling method, where he flipped his hand repeatedly along my lower back that sent tremors through my whole body and helped melt the tension in tight places.

That afternoon, I took a train to Xi’an in Central China. As I traded the city’s claustrophobic alleyways for the countryside, I felt more relaxed and began to forget the self-imposed duties of my research project.

At my hostel, I requested a single room over the eight-person dormitory. As I unpacked, I opened the box of Tongren Anshen Wan. The balls inside were about ¾ inch in diameter. They looked like Whoppers, the malted milk balls made by The Hershey Company. I bit into one. It tasted bland until I broke through the thin chocolate shell and arrived at the bitter cocktail of herbs. My nose wrinkled, and I had to force myself to swallow. Thirty minutes later, I may have felt calmer, but the medicine’s effects were imperceptible. Nevertheless, I slept deeply and soundly.

Perhaps the fire was out, I thought.

Several days later, I continued southwest by train to the Yunnan province. The redness on my back was fading, along with my sleep issues. I arrived in Shangri-La, where I made the pilgrimage to the 300-year old Ganden Sumtseling Gompa Tibetan monastery. The high altitude had the effect of calming the body and sharpening the mind.

As I strolled past Tibetan monks, I thought of my last conversation with Ziming. We had walked the streets following our meeting with the traditional doctor at Tongrentang, discussing the diagnosis of “too much fire.” The doctor had detected some obvious stress and fatigue, perhaps some eagerness or gumption, but she had also put her finger on an existential ailment. Ziming referred to it as “a young’s man condition.”

My “fire” wasn’t anger or insomnia, it was passion, which burned hot with energetic dreams. As we strolled, I told Ziming I was glad my fire still burned bright, even grateful that someone had noticed its flames. I was thankful to have found my sleep, but I didn’t want to be cured any time soon.