Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Ancient Wisdom of the East

Enthusiasts for alternative medicine always seem to stress how old their ideas are, as if "traditional" medicine was a good thing. They also love to denigrate "Western" medicine (even homeopaths do this, and their particular quackery was invented by a German). I have never understood why Eastern traditions are held in such regard in this context. Would you really want medical care from someone who does not accept germ theory, or who doesn't know that blood circulates around the body? Yet people still shell out a fortune for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), despite the fact that there is bugger-all evidence it actually works. Most of these people - indeed, most customers for all types of CAM - are wealthy, educated women who really should know better. But what they are buying is a strangely sanitised version of the real thing, an airbrushed, bowdlerised, Disneyfied tradition with one missing ingredient. Animals! So here are two stories from this week that show just how wise and wonderful the real Eastern medicine can be.

Huyet Linh

The first article was in Private Eye's "Funny Old World" column (Eye 1239), having originally appeared in The Vietnam Nation back in February. It describes the work of the men who hunt "huyet linh", a Vietnamese folk remedy that...
"...is believed by many people in the northern mountain provinces to have medicinal properties. They often use it in the belief that it strengthens the health of pregnant women, facilitates childbirth and prevents post-natal diseases."
Men too take
huyet linh, to boost their sexual health and give them increased stamina. To find it, our hunters embark on dangerous expeditions into the deep jungle of Thung mountain. They live for days in caves, sleeping wrapped in leaves to hide their human scent, eating only dried food and risking death or injury clambering through the rocks and trees.

The men are following a troop of monkeys, looking for females of child-bearing age, yet it is not the monkeys themselves that they are interested in. It is something the monkeys leave behind...
"After three days of walking along bumpy, snaking paths, and climbing up and down slippery caves, Voong looks a decade older than his actual age. His arms, legs and faces are covered with bruises and scratches. However, he blossoms into a smile of contentment when looking at his indigo haversack full of pieces of blotting paper darkened with monkey menstrual fluid."
Yes folks, it's monkey blood! The hunters earn millions of dong collecting drops and clots left behind by menstruating females. Mmmmm, dig that crazy oriental wisdom! Still, at least the monkeys are unharmed by this particular quackery. Another Asian forest animal is not so lucky.

Slow Loris

The slow lorises of Indonesia are an endangered species, mostly because they are illegally caught and sold as pets. In Japan, a slow loris will set you back at least $1,500 (according to a BBC report from 2007)...
"The pet shops advertise them, and they're very popular to Japanese ladies," says Masayuki Sakamoto from the Japan Wildlife Conservation Society. They're easy to keep, they don't cry, they're small, and just very cute."
They are also the planet's only poisonous primate. Incredibly, they store their poison in their elbows, which they then suck in order to inflict a toxic bite. For this reason, pet lorises have often had their teeth ripped out by the unscrupulous traders. This is cruel, of course, and also means that the lorises might find it much harder to survive if they were rescued and returned to the wild. Animal rescue charities are now studying their toothless lorises to work out how badly it affects them.

Pet traders are not the only enemy, however, for it turns out that lorises are also prized for their (you guessed it) medicinal and spiritual properties. That brings me to my second Eastern wisdom story this week: today's Grauniad report that...

"...luckless lorises frequently find themselves roasted alive over wood fires while eager people catch the supposedly life-giving liquor that drips out. Bits of their bodies are used in traditional medicine. And legend has it that villagers anxious about traffic safety need only bury a loris beneath a new road to keep it free from accidents"
The Grauniad is coy about what the benefits of loris juice are supposed to be, but a quick web search found this on the Care for the Wild International website:

Use in Traditional Medicine

Almost all body parts of slow lorises are used in Traditional Chinese and Khmer Medicine in Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, and Vietnam; to a lesser extent also in India and Indonesia. Use of:

  • Fur: in Traditional Asian Medicine believed to support wound healing; in Indonesia locally worn as amulet to ward off danger.
  • Eye-balls: as love potion
  • Flesh: to cure epilepsy
  • Meat: to cure stomach ailments or asthma
  • Whole body: in alcohol: used as “energy drink”

  • In Britain, mainstream providers of TCM tend not to go for the whole tiger-penis rhino-horn monkey-period nonsense. For example, my friends at the Northern College of Acupuncture are keen to stress that they do not use any endangered animals. But if ancient oriental wisdom can be so obviously, ridiculously moronic when it comes to rare animals, why would anyone credit it when it comes to more mundane ingredients? The whole thing stinks of economic expediency. They know that their market consists of air-headed muppets who would run a mile if they thought anything cute and fluffy was getting the chop on their behalf. Pathetic! Take a look at this loris, hippies. This poor wee fucker is the true face of your ancient Eastern wisdom.


    Stu said...

    Good Post Mike, really interesting stuff. Any progress on the banishing of the nutters in our lovely alternative medicine department. Is there in fact anything we can do.

    Mike Eslea said...

    Stu, there is indeed some news but I can't say anything until tomorrow. Watch this space...

    Neuroskeptic said...

    I'm a fan of the ancient wisdom of the West, myself. Get ill? It's God's punishment for your sins, so grab a whip and get flogging yourself!

    Cavall de Quer said...

    It's astonishing how often quackery involves cruelty to animals (not that EBM doesn't, too, of course). Look up the process for obtaining the necessary ingredient for homeopathic toad potions - many homeopathic "remedies" involve animals parts...........as for TCM, best not to start.

    Jhon said...

    This is very interesting stuff, Look up the process for obtaining the necessary ingredient for homeopathic toad potions.

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