Chinese Sketches‎ > ‎

08: Chinese Medical Science, No. II

Luxuriating in the "mental oasis" of Chinese literature in general, and the "New Collection of Tried Prescriptions" in particular, we have been tempted to carry our researches still further in that last-mentioned valuable work. It would have been sufficient to establish the reputation of any European treatise on medical science had it contained one such simple and efficacious method for extracting teeth as we gave in our chapter on Dentistry; but Chinese readers are not so easily satisfied, and it takes something more than mere remedies for coughs, colds, lumbago, or the gout, to ensure a man a foremost place among the Galens of China. Even a chapter on "Extraordinary Diseases," marvellous indeed in the eyes of the sceptical barbarian, is not enough for the hungry native mind; and nothing less than a whole section of the most miraculous remedies and antidotes, for and against all kinds of unheard-of diseases and poisons, would suffice to stamp the author as a man of genius, and his work as the offspring of successful toil in the fields of therapeutic science. Thus it comes about that the author of the "New Collection of Tried Prescriptions" gathers together at the close of his last volume such items of experience in his professional career as he has not been able to introduce into the body of his book, and from this chapter we purpose to glean a few of the most striking passages.

To begin with: Mr Darwin will be delighted to hear, if this should ever meet his eye, that the growth of tails among mankind in China is not limited to the appendage of hair which reposes gracefully on the back, and saturates with grease the outer garment of every high or low born Celestial. Elongation of the spine is, at any rate, common enough for Dr Wang to treat it as a disease and specify the remedy, which consists in tying a piece of medicated thread tightly round it, and tightening the thread from time to time until the tail drops off. In order, however, to guard against its growing again, a course of medicine has to be taken, whereby any little irregularities of the _yin_ or female principle[*] may be corrected, and the unpleasant tendency at once and for ever checked.

[*] The symbol of the _yin_ and the _yang_, or male and female principles, has been used in the beading of the cover to this volume. The dark half is the _yin_, the other the _yang_.

We then come to elaborate directions for the extirpation of all kinds of parasites, white ants, mosquitoes, &c.; but judging from the plentiful supply of such pests in every part of China, we can only conclude that the natives are apathetic as regards these trifles, and do not suffer the same inconvenience therefrom as the more delicately-nurtured barbarian. The next heading would somewhat astonish us, accustomed as we are to the vagaries of Chinese book-makers, were it not that the section upon which we are engaged is supposed to contain "miscellaneous" prescriptions, which may include anything, though it is a somewhat abrupt transition for a grave medical work to pass from the destruction of insects to a remedy against _fires_!

"Take three fowl's-eggs, and write at the big end of each the word _warm_, at the small end the word _beautiful_. Then throw them singly to the spot where the fire is burning brightest, uttering all the time 'fooshefahrun, fooshefahrun.' The fire will then go out." There are several other methods, but perhaps this one will be found to answer the purpose.

Further on we find a most practicable way for pedestrians of discovering the right direction to pursue at a cross road. "Carry with you a live tortoise, and when you come to a cross road and do not know which one to choose, put down the tortoise and follow it. Thus you will not go wrong." For people who are afraid of seeing bogies at night, the following is recommended:--"With the middle finger of the right hand trace on the palm of the left hand the words _I am a devil_, and close your hand up tight. You will then be able to travel without fear." Sea-sickness may be prevented by drinking the drippings from a bamboo punt-pole mixed with boiling water, or by inserting a lump of burnt mortar from a stove into the hair, without letting anybody know it is there; also by writing the character _earth_ on the palm of the hand previous to going on board ship. Ivory may be cleaned to look like new by using the whey of bean-curd, and rice may be protected from weevils and maggots by inserting the shell of a crab in the place where it is kept. The presence of bad air in wells may be detected by letting a fowl's feather drop down; if it falls straight, the air is pure; if it circles round and round, poisonous. Danger may be averted by throwing in a quantity of hot vinegar before descending. A fire may be kept alight from three to five days without additional fuel by merely putting a walnut among the live ashes; and a method is also given to make a candle burn many hours with hardly any perceptible decrease in size.

We close Dr Wang's "New Collection of Tried Prescriptions" with mingled feelings of admiration and regret: admiration, not indeed for the genius of its author, or any new light which may have been let in upon us during our study of this section of the "mental oasis" of Chinese literature, but for the indomitable energy and skill of those who have helped to emancipate us from similar trammels of ignorance and folly; regret, that a nation which carries within its core the germs of a transcendent greatness should still remain sunk in the lowest depths of superstitious gloom.