Yves here. It’s remarkable to learn that there’s been almost no study of the history and use of much decried Chinese animal-based treatments. But it should come as no surprise that modern use has more to do with mercenary motives than supposed “traditional culture”.
By Rachel Love Nuwer. Originally published at Undark
IZ P.Y. CHEE vividly remembers the first time she visited a bear farm. It was 2009, and Chee, who was working for a Singapore-based animal welfare group, flew to Laos to tour a Chinese-owned facility. The animals Chee saw “were hardly recognizable as bears,” she later wrote, “because they had rubbed most of their fur off against the bars of the cages and had grown very long toenails through disuse of their feet.”
As at countless other bear farms across China and Southeast Asia, the bears there were being held for their bile. Bear bile — which is either “milked” through a catheter permanently inserted into the animals’ gall bladders or extracted by stabbing large needles into the animals’ abdomens — is popularly prescribed across the region to treat a host of ailments, including, most recently, Covid-19. It is also marketed as an all-around health tonic. Although there is a growing animal welfare and anti-bear farming movement in China, the industry remains powerful.
BOOK REVIEW — “Mao’s Bestiary: Medicinal Animals and Modern China,” by Liz P. Y. Chee (Duke University Press Books, 288 pages).
Seeing the suffering bears made Chee wonder about the cultural and historical forces that brought the animals there — a question that propelled her to conduct exhaustive research on animal medicalization in China. In “Mao’s Bestiary: Medicinal Animals and Modern China,” she details her findings, many of which are distilled from sources never before published in English. Chee, who is now a research fellow and lecturer at the National University of Singapore, also found that, until now, even scholars in China have dedicated scant attention to the history of animal-based medicine, despite the controversy associated with the topic today.
“If Chinese medicine retains an Achilles’ heel in the present century, it is the widespread perception that it is contributing to a holocaust among wild creatures,” Chee writes, “and in so doing supporting a global criminal enterprise” of animal poaching and trafficking. Moreover, she adds, such medicines are often condemned “as being as ineffective as they are unethical,” even by some Chinese physicians. Many of these products are medically useless at best, Chee writes, and in some cases, actually harmful.
Defenders of animal-based Chinese medicine often point to the practice’s 2,000-plus year history. In “Mao’s Bestiary,” however, Chee shows that the roots establishing the use of most animals as ingredients in medicine are not as deeply planted in China’s culture as many believe. Instead, the industry as it exists now was purposefully developed, expanded, and promoted over the last century. Today, it is more closely linked to politics and profit than to ancient culture and tradition. This revelation has important implications for both species conservation and for public health, Chee argues, because it leaves room for “possibilities of choice and change.”
Chee focuses on the evolution of animal-based medicine throughout the tumultuous period of modern China’s formation, from the 1950s through the 1980s. These decades encompassed the early years of the People’s Republic of China, Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution and, finally, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms.
While animal-derived medicines do have a long history in China, Chee found that their use in the past was nowhere near the “startlingly abundant” level they are at today. Around 400 animals were cited in the 16th century “Compendium of Materia Medica,” for example, whereas more than 2,300 are listed today in pharmacopeias.
Many newly medicalized species exist only on distant continents, such as jaguars in South and Central America. Nor is China’s use of animals in traditional medicine solely based on Chinese innovation, Chee found; ideas, approaches, and technologies from the Soviet Union, North Korea, Japan, and the Western world all heavily influenced the industry’s development. So while animal-based products may still “hold the aura of tradition,” Chee writes, in fact, most are the products of a profit-driven expansion.
Efforts to abolish traditional medicine and replace it with a science-based approach, primarily inspired by Japan, began in the 1920s and continued through the early days of a Communist government that was racing to build an industrialized economy. While researchers acknowledged that some especially efficacious Chinese herbs were worth investigating to find their active ingredients, animal-based remedies were “initially undervalued and underdeveloped” by the new regime as it worked to build up its pharmaceutical sector, Chee writes.
Traditional doctors pushed back on the attempt to phase out their industry, however, and argued that the synergistic effects of the plant, animal, and mineral ingredients of their practice were too complex to be nailed down in a lab. To appease both groups, the state-owned drug-making sector decided that doctors trained in Chinese and Western medicine should learn from each other, “scientizing” Chinese medicine and seeking new innovations from tradition.
“To learn from the Soviet Union” was also a popular phrase in China at this time. Following the example set by the USSR, China was especially interested in creating its own pharmaceuticals from local ingredients to become self-sufficient. Soviet interest in animal-based folk medicine and the USSR’s own practice of farming deer for medicinal ingredients soon “provided modern and scientific sanction for the Chinese fascination with faunal drugs,” Chee writes.
During the Great Leap Forward’s period of rapid industrialization, “animals as well as plants were swept up in this nationwide project,” Chee continues. China expanded its export of high-end medicinal products like deer antler, rhino horn, and tiger bone, especially to Chinese expatriates. To meet steep quotas, authorities promoted the creation of “laboratory farms” for scaling up production. Entrepreneurs at these farms were also encouraged to find more uses for existing animal parts, and to engineer additional uses for new parts and species.
“Once a medicinal animal was farmed, there was pressure or incentive to justify the use of all of its parts, regardless of previous traditions that had often been quite selective as to which part should actually be taken as medicine, and for what purpose,” Chee writes. Medicine farms popped up for a host of additional species, including geckos, ground beetles, scorpions, snakes, and seahorses.
Wildlife farming also began being presented as something benefiting conservation because it allegedly spared wild animals from being hunted. In fact, it usually had the opposite effect by stimulating the market and relying on hunters to replenish farm stocks, Chee notes. While she does not delve deeply into the impact this has had on animal populations within and outside China, many sources today argue that demand for traditional medicine all but emptied the country’s forests of tigers, pangolins, and other highly sought after species.
During the purges and upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, the export of luxury medicines such as rhino horn were scaled up to generate much-needed revenue. Back home, however, a stark lack of medical care and supplies inspired an emphasis on “miracle cures” derived from cheaper, more common animals.
Chicken blood therapy — “the direct injection of chicken blood (from live chickens) into human bodies” — was representative of this time, Chee writes. The doctor who founded the treatment claimed chicken blood therapy could cure more than 100 conditions, and it was heavily promoted throughout the country, becoming “emblematic of economical grassroots innovations” and “the very expression of ‘red medicine,’” Chee writes.
This practice started to be phased out in 1968 when news surfaced of people dying after being injected with chicken blood. But similar remedies soon took its place, including ones that used goose or duck blood, lizard eggs, or toad heads. These new remedies were marketed as magic-like cures for serious and otherwise untreatable conditions, including cancer — “an attribute that has become standard in the marketing of many animal-based drugs today,” Chee writes.
After Deng came to power in 1978, wildlife farming and animal-based medicine “became even more popular as part of the official policy to enrich farmers,” Chee continues. The government-supported bear bile industry — which was originally inspired by facilities in North Korea and continues to flourish today — was one major result of this period, as was the proliferation of tiger farms.
Policy shifts also had significant ramifications for the regulation of Chinese medicine, and its impact on consumers and the environment. The forestry ministry was “given decision-making power over wild medicinal animals,” Chee writes, “and would essentially manage China’s forests as extraction sites.” Meanwhile, the health ministry only had full regulatory control of patented drugs, so companies selling animal-based medicines could bypass health or efficacy regulations and make extravagant, unchallenged claims about their products’ curative value.
Chinese medicine has become globalized over the last three decades, and animal-based products have “continued to play a central, if increasingly problematic, role,” Chee writes. The industry is assailed in the international media for its role in driving species declines, and clashes regularly occur within China between proponents of animal-based medicines and those who value wildlife and conservation. “Many middle-class Chinese, both on the mainland and in the diaspora, and within Chinese medicine itself, have been on the front lines in the battle to save endangered species from poaching and consumption,” Chee points out.
“Mao’s Bestiary” went to press in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, and Chee writes in the introduction that the likely link between Covid-19’s emergence and wild animals fundamentally changes the debate by making wildlife use a global public health issue.
Yet despite the undeniable threats posed by zoonotic diseases, animal-based traditional medicine remains an “immensely profitable, and thus politically influential” force in China, she continues. As evidence, Chinese authorities not only did not ban animal-based medicine during the pandemic, but actually promoted remedies containing bear bile for treating Covid-19.
As for shaping the industry’s future to mitigate the dangers for both wildlife and humans, Chee looks not to officials but to Chinese consumers, who can choose to boycott animal-based medicines. There is a large and growing animal welfare movement in China, so this could be more than just a pipe dream. “Whether they will reinvent the pharmacology of Chinese medicine as a practice less reliant on animals, endangered or otherwise,” she concludes, “remains a vital question.”
Big Animal strikes again.
Its a useful reminder that much ‘Chinese medicine’ is a relatively recent invention, driven by drug shortages during Mao’s day. Traditional remedies were likely very different from those now sold to Chinese and the curious. While there are no doubt some useful compounds hidden away in those concoctions – and also its possible that the combinations can work in some situations as is claimed by practitioners, most of it is nonsense.
One reason its still so popular is that, quite simply, conventional medicine in China as practised is terrible. Staff are poorly paid and treated and fake medicines are a huge problem. And its very expensive for most Chinese. Those who can afford it will often fly to Thailand or Korea to get treatment. Much the same situation exists in Vietnam, which has become a major source of both supply and demand for animal based ‘medicines’.
I don’t have any information regarding your second paragraph, but agree whole-heartedly with your first paragraph. I would apply the same to acupuncture and homeopathy. Disclosure–M.D.
I can only speak to my own experience with Chinese acupuncture. Till I was around 10 years old, every so often (like once a month) I would have nosebleeds and on top of that I would also frequently get boils on my buttocks. My mom had taken me to plenty of doctors but my condition persisted until she finally took me to a Chinese acupuncturist based on a friend’s recommendation. After the visit, I told my mom: “Hei mom, why did she put needles on my ears when the problem is somewhere else?”. Clearly I was less impressed by the entire ordeal.
Here’s the thing though. After that one single visit, I never had nosebleeds or boils again, like ZERO. It’s been twenty years, and I am still healthy.
Take it as you will, but I’d rather do that every single time than take things like antibiotics.
Here’s a series of posts by Dr. Gorski on acupuncture; specifically related to anesthesia.
Thanks. I read some of them, but I am a layman when it comes to medicine. All I can say is that I went to an acupuncturist once, and I’ve been grateful ever since.
I am wondering if acupuncture/Chinese medicine in general is a case of “Those who know don’t talk. Those who talk don’t know”. I am guessing there are highly effective practitioners out there, but they are overshadowed by snake oilmen in the industry.
But acupuncture is one of the bona fide ancient Chinese medical arts, refined through centuries of trial and error: 1000+ year old diagrams are still used today.
….As the writer notes, most of the animal medicines today though are basically “patent medicines”, snake oil, etc., with at best ‘homeopathic’ benefits, but generally based on false analogies, much like Leos/Dragons are leaders, Scorpios are vengeful, etc. To the sorrow of charismatic megafauna everywhere.
I have a Chin-Am friend, an animal rights activist, who was utterly mortified to find that his HK MiL had procured at huge expense, and was slipping him, powdered tiger, umm, organ. To hasten the creation of grandchildren, of course.
You also have the phenomenon of rare wildlife banquets, Tremalchio’s feasts, available to wealthy Chinese throughout mainland Southeast Asia. As I’ve noted before, China is going through the ‘machine gunning herds of bison from trains’ phase of giddy wealth accumulation, much like our Gilded Age 1840 – 1910. Ostentatious consumption of rare and precious things is part and parcel of that mentality.
And of course the ongoing decimation of the planet’s marine life, especially pelagic fish populations, by Chinese supertrawlers, looting the ocean commons (not the first society to do so, but by far the most thorough). The coelecanth are going to need to start over again, methinks, along with a few seven gill sharks, once our species finaly goes ‘its up.
The irony of this is the fact that many western medicines we use today are plant and animal-derived: Vincristine, Digoxin, the salicylates, early bovine-based insulins, etc. Some of the COVID19 vaccines owe their production to the extractions from some sea animals – and parts of some animals were/are used for heart valve replacements (pig).
Yeah, if you think about it, where else would they come from? Musk or Bezos might someday return from space with plants/animals from outer space, but for now we are stuck with ingredients from Mother Earth.
This reminds me of historical research in the 90s that said the Scottish clan tartans were largely a creation of Victorian British department stores seeking to sell fabric and garments.
Reminds me of the “natural supplements “ industry right here in the US!
No, some supplements have medical benefits or at least effects. Vitamin D and zinc reduce vulnerability to Covid. Glucosamine and curcumin do reduce inflammation. Aloe vera helps with burns. Vitamin E oil reduces scarring. Red yeast rice created a big stir here because a US product was designed to be bioidentical to a prescription medication. And we allow the OTC sale of a few hormones, which most assuredly Do Something: melatonin and DHEA.
And it is extremely difficult to get enough nutrients from food due to depletion of soil. The Department of Agriculture was recommending taking vitamins in the 1930s explicitly for that reason. Most vegans need to take dietary supplements to get critical nutrients normally found in adequate concentrations only in animal products.
Premarin, one of the standard FDA-approved estrogens, is extracted from PREgnant MAre urINe.
Much, much more humane than bear gall.
Ginger is very effective against nausea, and rubbing pieces of garlic on mosquito bites relieves itching.
I would appreciate a well-researched treatise on traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and its ineffectiveness. I have not seen any posts or comments here that properly discredit TCM. Please post a link if you have recommendations.
I rant here about traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in general, not specifically animal-based medicines. Nevertheless, I have not read anything with substance that invalidates or proves the effectiveness of TCM. My knowledge of TCM comes indirectly from experiences with herbal TCM (less so animal-based), and my experience has entrenched my belief that TCM is dangerous and delusional.
First, I am deeply suspicious when the Chinese and TCM practitioners pound the table and repeat, “TCM works. It works. 2000 years of history. 2000 years of effectiveness. 2000 years of culling the best practices.” There are numerous examples in history of doctors promoting shoddy medicinal practices, which persisted for far too long – e.g. leeches, lobotomies. A clinician should assume a treatment does not work, until the evidence favors a good outcome. Please make sure the treatment doesn’t hurt the patient.
Second, ordinary Chinese people (not TCM doctors) pushing for TCM is also disturbing. Out of the billion ethnically Chinese in the world, I know approximately 20-30, so my sample size definitely can not be generalized. I surmise one reason they do this is for ethnocentric pride. They think, “These traditional Chinese doctors are super smart. Therefore, I am smart by necessity for no other reason besides the common ethnicity.” Look, I sincerely wish you good health. If TCM really fixed your medical problem, I’m happy for you. However, the people with the best access to TCM, presumably in China or Hong Kong, do not score high on nationwide scores of good health – e.g. average lifespan or incidence of diabetes/heart disease/stroke. Of course, patients rooting for a particular type of medical treatment is not limited to the Chinese. The National Institute of Mental Illness (and perhaps even the local bipolar support group) essentially recruits members to run an astroturf campaign to drive the use of psychiatric drugs.
2.5, ardent proponents of TCM, who are not necessarily Han Chinese, come out of the woodwork and pound the table. “I don’t know how it works. Maybe it’s magical, but it works.” This is similar to how Yves, Roubini, Taleb, and Barkley Rosser recently wrote about the foolish dangerousness inherent with cryptocurrencies (which are not truly currencies nor encrypted) and commenters who I never see here pound the table. “Use case this. Use case that.”
Third, the endless amount of praise showered on TCM practitioners is nauseating. The Chinese are apparently sincere in their frequent praise of TCM practitioners and not flattering or ingratiating themselves with the practitioner. I surmise again that this is again a roundabout way for ethnocentric self-congratulation. Invariably, the conversations about TCM I have heard involve a sycophant complimenting the practitioner and never involve a substantive claim about the mechanisms by which Chinese herbal/animal medicine is curative. If I was a TCM practitioner, these sycophantic compliments would disgust me. This is similar to individuals who “serve our country” in the American military and subsequently receive nauseating amounts of gratitude. (By the way, who are they “serving”? And instead of “serving”, don’t soldiers work – just like the rest of us?)
Fourth, the methods and ingredients in TCM are often opaque. As the above article suggests for medicine derived from animals, the opaqueness is deliberate because of the dubious animal poaching practices. Nevertheless, may we have some written material about the TCM substance/remedy for irregular heartbeat or respiratory difficulty, its ingredients, and its mechanism of action? How does anyone know if it actually encourages a regular heartbeat if there is a dearth of written material? Go ahead and write about nebulous concepts like meridians or chi. Please show me why it works (or doesn’t). The two recent posts about Alzheimer’s and Aducanumab state why Aducanumab is ineffective. Is it really that hard to show that tea made from dried snakes did nothing for respiratory difficulty?
(I’m venturing into straw man territory here.) Fifth, do TCM practitioners have written records and correspondence? I suspect the answer is no. It just seems unlikely to me that a TCM practitioner writes to another one and discusses how to improve this medication or that procedure. It seems unlikely to me that the young TCM practitioner reviews his own patient records to self-evaluate his own ability. I have some extremely rare medical problems. When I last requested my medical records, my doctor has a clear written record of which treatments were useful or not. A year or two from now when he gets another patient with my disorder, he could review the notes for me and reflect upon his decision making. I doubt this happens in TCM. Patients have faith in the practitioners. Practitioners have faith in their own ability. Both have faith in the medicine, which…
Lastly, the medicine in TCM smells bloody awful. Anything that smells that awful can not possibly be salutary.
To quote Patrick O’Brian’s polymath physician, Stephen Maturin, upon being queried why his famed ‘blue bolus’ needed so many additional ingredients to make it taste vile:
“Your sailor likes to know he has been dosed!”
Good comments here, btw, thanks all!
I’m a person who immerses himself daily in Chinese popular media. And as a Westerner, I’m astonished by the level of Chinese belief in TCM. Remember that we’re talking about a billion (1.4B) consumers, hundreds of millions of whom have decent amount of cash. Most really do believe in TCM and view it as superior to Western medicine for many things (a broken bone, obviously not). But the total lack of curiosity about evidence reminds one all those people who used to swear by Galen’s humors. “It’s 2000 years old” — except it’s really not, just like there’s really not “5000 years” of Chinese history (unless you posit that literally every place and nation on the planet have 5000 years of history). But just saying TCM is 2000 years old is like flipping a light switch that eliminates all questions.
They really do believe TCM is a valuable thing they can offer the world as proof of Chinese excellence. I have no idea why all those newly-minted Chinese billionaires aren’t pouring billions into research. Wouldn’t that be the way to prove how great TCM is? Maybe I’m just not aware of all the studies.
As for the tiger “part” mentioned by ObjectiveFunction, most Chinese really do believe in literal and effective aphrodisiacs (the non-Rohypnol kind). Meanwhile, any drug company CEO out there would sell his mother for a female version of Viagra.
The evidence for acupuncture is equivocal. If it has any effect, it’s only for pain management. Which is highly susceptible to the placebo effect. But even that’s miles better than TCM.
There are effective libido enhancers for females, but they are natural herbs that cannot be patented, like hops. That’s why drug companies aren’t aware of them.
Is there a book out there that addresses the practice of TCM during ancient Chinese times? If TCM never worked at all over the course of 2000 years, it’s hard to believe how the Chinese could build empires, wage wars, conduct overseas trades, etc.
Frontal lobotomy was an effective treatment. Its inventor, the Portuguese surgeon Egas Moniz, received the Nobel prize for it. I grant that it was probably used unnecessarily in many cases. Frontal lobotomy was the only effective treatment for violent mental patients before effective psychiatric drugs appeared in the 1950s. Nowadays it is no longer needed because of those drugs. “astroturf campaign to drive the use of psychiatric drugs”. Some such drugs are effective, there can be no doubt about it.
First it is my opinion even if animal based medicines turn out to be effective I suspect as currently practiced they are unethical. I have little doubt that acupuncture and herbal medicines can be effective. Most of our western medications are based off of natural herbal substances. The Chinese developed their medicine’s using a systems approach rather than the reductionist approach that western medicine has used, thus it can be harder to understand and validate the historical records. If anyone is interested in the difference you may find it worth reading “The Web has no Weaver”. I dated a highly respected practitioner of TMC who’s clients were very wealthy and often famous that after western medicine had repeatedly failed them, or someone in their family, they turned to her and in most cases she was able to resolve the issue often surprisingly quickly. Now a few qualifiers that I observed. First and most important, like herbs and supplements sold here in the US there is no regulatory body checking the purity so she was well connected with her suppliers and the TCM community (it helps to speak fluent Chinese), thus could count on highest quality, which is critical for success. For many when and how they are harvested matters as well as how the are prepared and stored. Unlike western medicine, which generally ignores the drug interactions unless they cause an immediate negative reaction, Chinese medicine counts on the synergistic affects, which can be heavily influenced by the individuals own reactions, thus it takes years of practice to develop the art and is much more akin to what a family doctor used to do when they made house calls. Lifestyle changes were generally necessary as part of the cure and to prevent remission or other complications as a large factor in chronic disease was often the western lifestyle. Like all medicine there is a strong placebo effect and in general like the Shamans a good TCM practitioner will try and take advantage of the effect. While I do supplement with medicinal herbs they usually tend to be classified as culinary, such as basil, oregano, turmeric, etc and so far, fingers crossed, they have managed to get me into “old age” without suffering any chronic illness, just traumatic injuries and my western trained friend/doctor that I’ve known since college has been able to successfully piece me back together more times that I shall admit. So I while I can vouch that acupuncture can induce a state of general relaxation and relieve pain, I don’t have personal experience with TCM herbs. I will say for anyone looking to start a new business, producing organic certified medicinal herbs, Chinese or otherwise could be a very profitable business as with the animals most of the valuable ones have been severely depleted from their native habitats and what you can find on the general market are often of dubious quality.
Clinical trials have shown that ginseng, a well established traditional Chinese remedy, has no therapeutic value at all. The charts of the human body that guide acupuncturists do not reflect any observable anatomical features. They are pure fantasy.
We require links for claims like that. You provided none. I’m approving your comment only to make an example of you.
It took me all of 2 minutes to find links to studies that contradict your assertions.