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Tibetan Medicine Goes Beyond the Plateau

2021-05-18 10:03:00 Source:China Today Author:staff reporter LI YUAN
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Ms. Huang, a Chongqing local, felt an unexpected chill one summer morning. “I [instinctively] knew I was going to catch a cold,” she said. Her response was to make an appointment at a health spa called Treasure without Borders for a Tibetan medicinal bath. Huang and her 16-year-old daughter are both regulars at the spa. She believes that many ailments can be eased through the healing properties of a medicinal bath.

Tibetan medicine has been passed down on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau for more than 2,000 years. As a traditional therapy of Tibetan medicine, the medicinal bathing was officially inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2018. Nowadays, Tibetan medicine is attracting increasingly higher world attention thanks to its profound cultural heritage and unique healing effects. It has truly gone beyond the plateau to treat patients all over the globe.

A Tibetan medicine expert walks through the virgin forest of Nyingchi in search of Tibetan medicinal plants.

Unique Curative Effects

Wang Wanlin is the founder of the Treasure without Borders herbal bathing spa. Ten years ago, Tibetan medicine cured her gynecological ailments, and she was so impressed with the results and the development prospects of the treatment that she opened a Tibetan herbal spa.

“We didn’t have many customers at first, but in recent years, our business has grown. The customers all came with the recommendation of their friends, relatives, or families,” said Wang.

“Soaking in the herbal bath will open up your pores, and you can feel completely energetic after sweating,” said Huang, describing her bathing experience. She said that every time she had some symptoms of a cold, she would take one or two herbal baths, and it could totally cure her.

According to historical records, the Tibetan herbal bathing is the continuation and deepening of the customs of the Tibetan bathing festival. Typically, it is an experience of bathing in natural hot springs, herbal water or steam.

The herbal water is applied to the injured body parts or put in the bathtub at an appropriate temperature. Through skin pores and acupoints, the essence of the medicinal herbs goes into the body, promoting blood circulation and removing blood stasis, keeping colds away and nourishing the whole body, according to Tibetan medicine theory.

In order to expand the therapeutic scope of the medicinal bathing, practitioners of Tibetan medicine have developed a variety of formulas for the prevention and treatment of diseases in viscera, joints, skin, and nerves. As an important part of Tibetan medicine, the herbal bathing has been widely used in clinical practice and played a unique role in the prevention and treatment of diseases.

Nowadays, there are special departments for medicinal bathing in many hospitals featuring Tibetan medicine. Such spas are common in large and medium-sized cities across China. The baths are favored not only by the Chinese people, but also by people visiting from abroad. The former prime minister of Kazakhstan once took a nine-day therapy in Beijing, and was impressed by its magical curative effects.

Rhododendron parvifolium, a herb normally used in Tibetan herbal bathing.


Twice every year, Wang Wanlin replenishes her stock of herbs. To ensure the quality, she always asks Tsering, a professional doctor of Tibetan medicine, to make the final check before she buys medicinal herbs. “The herbs [that] mature in July and August are of the best quality. The higher the altitude, the purer the herbs, and the better their efficacy,” said Tsering.

In addition to selecting good medicinal plants, doctors’ skills and pharmaceutical methods also directly affect the effect of the herbal bathing.

In preparing a bath, Tsering always adds different herbs according to the ailment of the patient.

From medicinal plants to finished products, Tibetan medicine needs to go through multiple procedures, such as cleaning, drying, selecting, and processing, and each procedure has strict requirements. In addition to following the procedures, Tsering only prepares 50 to 60 kilograms of finished medicinal products each time. “That is the largest amount that we can produce with medicinal herbs available in one harvest season,” he said. This explains why many big pharmaceutical companies’ bath products have poor efficacy.

Tsering is delighted that the bathing therapy is so widely accepted, but he also has concerns. He said that for thousands of years, generation after generation of Tibetan doctors collected natural medicinal plants on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and made medicine according to ancient recipes. The growth cycle of such wild medicinal herbs is long. With an increasing demand for them, many precious plants are now becoming endangered.

“In the past, we could collect a lot of medicinal plants in one or two hours, but now it takes days to collect the same amount. We urgently need to protect the natural medicinal resources on the plateau.”

In recent years, the Chinese government has also taken a number of measures to promote the development of Tibetan medicine. In particular, many varieties of Tibetan medicinal plants have been cultivated on a large scale, and wild medicinal resources have been put under protection.

Tsering has been practicing medicine for more than 30 years. Now, he still reads medical classics every day. “Every time I read those classics, I can gain something new,” he said. According to Tsering, tens of thousands of prescriptions handed down from ancient Tibetan doctors are very useful in treating the diseases affecting people today, with a cure rate of 70 to 80 percent. The cure rate is related to the health conditions of each patient, regardless of skin color or ethnicity. “To gain recognition from all sectors of society is the best way to promote Tibetan medicine for me,” he said.

Two workers busy processing medicinal herbs at a medicine spa center of the Tibetan Medicine Hospital in Shannan City, on November 23, 2018.

Yangga, professor of Tibetan Medicine University, has been part of the team applying to add Tibetan herbal bathing to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

Spreading to the World

As early as the seventh century, Tibetan medicine had had a great influence in Tibet and neighboring Nepal, Bhutan, and India. In the 18th century, it began to spread to Europe and prompted a global research boom.

In the early 1990s, David M. Eisenberg from Harvard University published an article on unconventional therapies in the New England Journal of Medicine, which promoted natural medicine, including traditional Tibetan medicine, among the general public in the United States.

In November 1998, the first international symposium on Tibetan medicine was held in Washington, D.C. It mainly discussed the situation and practice of traditional Tibetan medicine, its clinical verification, literature research, the application of its psychotherapy, and the protection and utilization of its resources. Nearly 200 scholars from across the world attended the symposium, and more than 100 papers were presented.

In November 2003, the second symposium was also held in Washington, D.C., which played a pivotal role in the spread of Tibetan medicine and the promotion of traditional Tibetan medicine to enter the international mainstream medical field.

With the continuous development and progress of modern science and technology, Tibetan medicine has once again ushered in a new wave of development and innovation. Tibet Autonomous Region allocates special funds every year to encourage basic research for Tibetan medicine, as well as the development of medical treatment, education, culture, and related industries.

At present, there are 44 public medical facilities featuring Tibetan medicine in Tibet. The coverage of Tibetan medicine services in township and village clinics reached 94.4 percent and 42.4 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, local government has paid great attention to improving the service capacity of the Tibetan medicine industry, shifting the production of Tibetan medicine from individually-owned businesses to standardized big plants capable of mass production.

Until now, 17 Tibetan pharmaceutical manufacturers in Tibet have got their Good Manufacturing Practice certification. The foundation for the marketing of Tibetan medicine has been further consolidated, and the output of Tibetan medicine in the autonomous region values RMB 1.7 billion.

How to further promote Tibetan medicine globally remains a demanding task. Yangga, an expert on Tibetan medicine and director of the Graduate Department of Tibetan Medicine University, has been thinking over the issue.

“There’s increasingly higher attention on Tibetan medicine worldwide, and many universities and countries have set up research institutions dedicated to the study of Tibetan medicine. In this regard, we need to step up efforts in digitalizing and translating the literature on Tibetan medicine,” said Yangga.

At the same time, he stressed the need to strengthen communication with the outside world and help people understand the medicinal system.

As an excellent representative of national culture, Tibetan medicine has become a brand of Chinese national medicine. Its development will not only effectively ensure the continuation of the Chinese nation’s traditional culture, but also benefit more patients and bring benefits to the world.

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