Good Medicine Tastes Bitter


Feeling peaky? Let’s learn some words on medicine in Chinese.

Compared to 西医 (xī yī), Western medicine, 中医 (zhōng yī), traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and Chinese herbs seem a little bit mysterious.

The character for “medicine” in Chinese has a radical which means herb, probably because 药草 (yào cǎo), Chinese medicinal herbs, are the fundamental elements of 中药学 (zhōng yào xué), traditional Chinese pharmacology. If you step into a traditional Chinese 药店 (yào diàn), pharmacy or drugstore, behind the counter you will see floor-to-ceiling cabinets with dozens of drawers, in which are various types of herbs, minerals, and animal-derived medicines. These materials can be used as components of traditional Chinese medicines prescribed by a doctor. Then a 药师 (yào shī), apothecary or pharmacist, will weigh each component according to the prescription and package up the parcel. You can either ask the drugstore to 煎药 (jiān yào), decoct the medicine, for you, or you can decoct yourself at home. Some Chinese medicines can be soaked in 药酒 (yào jiǔ), medicinal liquor, to enhance their therapeutic properties.

TCM has a systematic 医学传统 (yī xué chuán tǒng), tradition of medical science, and theory. There are two renowned classics: 《黄帝内经》 (Huáng Dì Nèi Jīng), The Inner Canon of Huangdi, and 《本草纲目》 (Běn Cǎo Gāng Mù), Compendium of Materia Medica. To put it simply, the basic principle of traditional Chinese medicine is to 预防疾病 (yù fáng jí bìng), prevent disease, and to prioritize 保健养生 (bǎo jiàn yǎng shēng), maintaining good health; meanwhile, it emphasizes 治本 (zhì běn), finding a fundamental cure, rather than 治标 (zhì biāo), curing a disease superficially. The biggest difference between Chinese medicine and Western medicine is that in Western medicine for almost every sickness, doctors 给病人开药 (gěi bìng rén kāi yào), prescribe pills for patients, whereas in China, effective treatments also include 针灸 (zhēn jiǔ), acupuncture, 推拿 (tuī ná), massage, 拔罐 (bá guàn), cupping, and 刮痧 (guā shā), scrape therapy. Sometimes, 艾灸 (ài jiǔ), moxa-moxibustion, is also used by burning wormwood at the related 穴位 (xué wèi), acupuncture points, which are the vital areas for both massage and cupping to gain the maximum effect. Cupping is used to 排毒 (pái dú), expel toxins, and 通脉络 (tōng mài luò), clear channels through which vital energy circulates.

TCM generally regards Western medicine as 治标不治本 (zhì biāo bú zhì běn), curing the symptoms but not eliminating the fundamental cause, and also has 副作用 (fù zuò yòng), side effects. However, when they get 重病 (zhòng bìng), seriously ill, or need severe treatment, Chinese people often turn to Western medicine or a combination of both Eastern and Western therapies because TCM often 效果很慢 (xiào guǒ hěn màn), has a rather slow effect.

The definition of 病症 (bìng zhèng), illness, is quite different between Chinese and Western doctors. For example, 上火 (shàng huǒ), suffering from excessive internal heat, in China is not the same as 发烧 (fā shāo), fever, or 发炎 (fā yán), inflammation. If a person 内火太旺 (nèi huǒ tài wàng), has excessive internal heat, it means that his body has a yin-yang imbalance. He needs to take some herbal medicine, drink tea or 改变饮食 (gǎi biàn yǐn shí), change his diet, to 调理 (tiáo lǐ), nurse his health, and to 清热解毒 (qīng rè jiě dú), rid his body from excessive heat and toxic materials. There is a phrase in Chinese 急火攻心 (jí huǒ gōng xīn), literally meaning that a sudden inner heat attacks one’s heart, that is to say someone may feel sick because there is no outlet for the negative energy that the body stores when faced with times of stress in life or work, and finally the body collapses.

Cold symptoms can usually be divided into two types, 伤寒 (shāng hán), typhoid, and 伤热 (shāng rè), fever caused by instant heat and cold wind, which are separately known as 受凉 (shòu liáng), catching a cold, or 热伤风 (rè shāng fēng), a summer cold. An extreme summer cold is called sunstroke, which will cause 头晕 (tóu yūn), dizziness, and 乏力 (fá lì), weakness.

It is customary for the Chinese never to mention sickness in greetings; but they do wish patients 早日康复 (zǎo rì kāng fù), which is the equivalent of “get well soon.” They would also tell you to 好好休息 (hǎo hǎo xiū xi), have a good rest, and 好好养病 (hǎo hǎo yǎng bìng), regain your health and energy. To avoid 传染给别人 (chuán rǎn gěi bié rén), infecting others, the patient should 戴口罩 (dài kǒu zhào), wear a mask, because no one is 百毒不侵 (bǎi dú bù qīn), immune from all viruses. Never say that somebody 有病 (yǒu bìng), which literally means ill, since it implies that someone has a mental disorder, and is derogatory. Instead, you should say that someone 生病了 (shēng bìng le), has fallen ill, or 得病 (dé bìng), gotten sick.

When someone has 感冒 (gǎn mào), a cold or flu, a TCM doctor would advise them not to take too much medicine because in TCM theory there is a saying 以毒攻毒 (yǐ dú gōng dú), fighting poison with poison, and sometimes the patient doesn’t need drugs but can recover naturally with good rest. Most Chinese don’t like to 乱吃药 (luàn chī yào), take medicine arbitrarily, because they believe that 是药三分毒 (shì yào sān fēn dú), any medicine is more or less harmful to the body. Therefore, they often remind others to 少吃药 (shǎo chī yào), take as little medicine as possible.