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  • Writer's pictureMiranda Brown

Don’t Blame Chinese Medicine for the Coronavirus: A Response to the New York Times Op-Ed

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

On February 24, The New York Times published an opinion piece, “Why Did the Coronavirus Outbreak Start in China? Let’s Talk about the Cultural Causes of This Epidemic.” Its author, Yi-Zheng Lian, blamed the recent epidemic on the scholarly Chinese medical tradition. For millennia, elite writers supposedly implanted misguided ideas about health and virility into the “Chinese collective consciousness.” Such ideas, Lian charged, have come at a high cost to global health.

The op-ed is a study in fuzzy thinking. In case you’re wondering, Lian is an American-educated economist, not an expert on Asian history or epidemiology. His grasp of the Chinese medical tradition is shaky, too. That tradition doesn’t encourage folks to consume either pangolin or civet for sexual gratification.

So what do Chinese do with wild animals like pangolin and civet? According to Lian, they purchase these animals in order to fill the energy void. “For men,” he writes, “it is most important to fill the energy void, which is related to virility and sexual prowess; for women, the stress is on replacing blood, which improves beauty and fertility.”

Curious whether Chinese medicine doctors use pangolin, I checked the standard classics of Chinese pharmacology. My search turned up no sex or skin care applications. I also consulted professional Chinese medicine healers.

Guess what? Lian is wrong. To be sure, some physicians used pangolin products up until a few decades ago, but not to improve male potency. (The ancients, incidentally, had fixes for erectile dysfunction, a real condition, and I translated some of them with Yang Yong.) Instead, they used small amounts of pangolin scales to treat serious conditions like abscesses, or female disorders like amenorrhea and problems with nursing.

So what about the dreadful civet, Lian’s choice of clickbait? Civet is the small mammal suspected of being the source of the original SARs outbreak. It’s also the fruit-eater that poops out half-digested coffee beans for Western coffee connoisseurs. You can buy the cage-free variety on Amazon for a premium.

The Chinese medicine doctors I asked drew a blank. My own search through databases turned up no formulas made with civet. Admittedly, some old books on diet mentioned the life-giving properties of the mammal. They also did the same for everyday ingredients like rice and wheat.

Instead, the Chinese have long valued the quadruped for its soft texture and jade-white flesh. The great Song-dynasty poet, gourmand, and official, Su Shi (1037-1101) was once a fan. He left a famous poem about eating the tropical mammal while in exile.

Su Shi was not alone in his esteem for civet. Foodies adored its meat pickled or coated in sticky rice and cooking beer, served with scallions and numbing peppercorns. Civet remained popular into the twentieth century.

There are other problems with Lian’s treatment of Chinese medicine. He has a habit of bringing everything in Chinese medicine back to sex: “virility and sexual prowess, “penises of bulls or horses,” and “erections.” Needless to say, this leaves the impression that Chinese medicine is just about men having sex. This is like claiming that the American healthcare system exists solely to sustain erections. Viagra does generate 640 million dollars a year in revenue. But our doctors also heal bones, deliver babies, and treat cancer.

Lian is also off the mark about Chinese medical philosophy. He acts as if “filling the energy void” (jinbu 進補) is the main concern. The “void” here is Lian’s rather creative – or sophomoric – rendering of the Chinese. Jinbu simply means “to take food as a supplement.” But doctors did not just supplement deficiencies in the body. They also addressed problems of excess and circulation.

At the end of the day, Lian and I can agree about some things. Wildlife consumption needs to be strictly regulated, and endangered species must be protected. And some Chinese folk remedies, such as diet tea, should be retired. Then again, a well-trained Chinese doctor knows better than to prescribe lethal amounts of mahuang (ephedra).

But I disagree with Lian about Chinese medicine. In reducing a complex healing tradition to a handful of bedroom and beauty hacks, he paints a distorted picture of an effective healthcare system used by millions around the world each year.

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