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07: Medical Science

In spite of the glowing reports issued annually from various foreign hospitals for natives, and the undeniable good, though desultory and practically infinitesimal, that is being worked by these institutions, we cannot blind ourselves to the fact that western medical science is not making more rapid strides than many other innovations in the great struggle against Chinese prejudice and distrust. By far the majority of our servants and those natives who come most in contact with foreigners never dream of consulting a European doctor; or if they do, that is quite as much as can be said, for we may pronounce it a fact that they never take either his advice or his medicine. They still prefer to appear with large dabs of green plaster stuck on either temple, and to drink loathsome concoctions of marvellous drugs, compounded according to eternal principles laid down many centuries ago. In serious cases, when they employ their own doctors, they are apt to mark, as Bacon said, the hits but not the misses; and failure of human skill is generally regarded as resulting from the interposition of divine will. Directly, however, a foreigner comes upon the scene they forget at once that medicine is an uncertain science, and expect not only a sure but an almost instantaneous recovery; and, unfortunately, a single failure is quite enough to undo the good of many months of successful practice. One Chinaman bitterly complained to us of a foreign doctor, and sweepingly denounced the whole system of western treatment, because the practitioner alluded to had failed to cure his mother, aged eighty, of a very severe paralytic stroke. A certain percentage of natives are annually benefited by advice and medicine, both of which are provided gratis, and go home to tell the news and exhibit themselves as living proofs of the _foreign devils'_ skill; but in many instances their friends either believe that magical arts have been brought to bear, or that after all a Chinese doctor would have treated the case with equal success, and accordingly the number of patients increases in a ratio very disproportionate to the amount of good really effected. Besides, if faith in European doctors was truly spreading to any great extent, we should hear of wealthy Chinamen regularly calling them in and contributing towards the income of those now in full practice at the Treaty ports. It is absurd to point to isolated cases in a nation of several hundred millions, and argue that progress is being made because General This or Prefect That consented to have an abscess lanced by a foreign surgeon, and sent him a flowery letter of thanks with a couple of Chinese hams after the operation. The Chinese as a people laugh at our medical science, and, we are bound to say, with some show of justice on their side. They have a medical literature of considerable extent, and though we may condemn it wholesale as a farrago of utter nonsense, it is not so to the Chinese, who fondly regard their knowledge in this branch of science as one among many precious heirlooms which has come down to them from times of the remotest antiquity.

We alluded in the last Sketch to a work in eight small volumes called "New Collection of Tried Prescriptions," a book which answers to our "Domestic Medicine," and professes to supply well-authenticated remedies for some of the most common ills that flesh is heir to. This book gives a fair idea of the principles and practice of medical science in China. It is divided into sections and subdivided into chapters under such headings as the _eye_, the _teeth_, the _hand_, the _leg_, &c. &c. We gave a specimen of the prescriptions herein brought together in our late remarks upon the methods of extracting teeth, but it would be doing an injustice to the learning of its author if we omitted to point out that in this book remedies are provided, not only for such simple complaints as chilblains or the stomach-ache, but for all kinds of serious complications arising from the evil influence of demons or devils. One whole chapter is devoted to "Extraordinary Diseases," and teaches anxious relatives to give instant relief in cases of "the face swelling as big as a peck measure, and little men three feet long appearing in the eyes." "Seeing one thing as if it were two," would hardly be classed by London doctors as an extraordinary disease, and is not altogether unknown even amongst foreigners in China. "Seeing things upside down after drinking wine," belongs in the same category, and may be cited in proof of a position take up by most observers, namely, that the Chinese are a sober people. "Seeing kaleidoscopic views which turn to beautiful women," "the flesh becoming hard as a stone and sounding like a bell when tapped," "objecting to eat in company," and such diseases have each a special prescription offered by the learned Dr Wang with the utmost gravity, and accepted in good faith by many a confiding patient.

Chinamen look with suspicion on the sober treatment of the West, where no joss-stick is burnt, and no paper money is offered on the altar of some favourite P'u-sa; though, if they knew the whole truth, they would discover that intercessory prayers for the recovery of sick persons are considered by many of us to be of equal importance with the administration of pills and draughts. Further, like our own agricultural classes, they have no faith in medicine of any kind which does not make its presence felt not only quickly but powerfully. This last desire was amply fulfilled in the case of one poor coolie who applied to an acquaintance of ours for some foreign medicine to cure a sick headache and bilious attack from which he was suffering. Our friend immediately bethought himself of a Seidlitz powder; but when all was ready, the acid in one wine-glass of water and the salt in another, the devil entered into him, and he gave them to his victim to drink one after the other. The result was indescribable, for the mixture _fizzed inside_, and the unfortunate coolie passed such a _mauvais quart d'heure_ as effectually to cure his experimenting master from any further indulgence in practical jokes of so extremely dangerous a nature.