As these things go, I’m pretty white. I enjoy mayonnaise on sandwiches — and even on french fries, if the mood strikes me right.
I shop at Banana Republic. I’ve watched almost all of “Gilmore Girls” — except for Season Seven, of course, which was the terrible one. I even went through a period where I thought Dave Matthews Band was an acceptable music choice. (We all recover eventually.)
Normally, this would leave me unable to comment on the relative curative merits of Chinese folk medicine, given my cultural handicap. As it so happens, my wife is ethnically Chinese, so I can tell you a lot of it is pretty much rubbish.
Mind you, my wife is an academic in the sciences and spent much of her formative time abroad, which means she, too, thinks it’s rubbish. (She studied in the U.K., so she actually thinks it’s “such bloody rubbish.”)
My mother-in-law, bless her dear soul, is a perfervid believer in folk medicine, which leads to some conflicts when we visit.
Most herbs don’t do anything and taste atrocious, but I’m always reliably informed that if I eat enough of it, it’ll stop <insert condition here>. Drinking cold water leads to cancer, but if you drink warm water you’ll be healthy, wealthy and, if not wise, at least a bit warmer. Have an allergic rash on your skin? Bird’s nest soup will clear that up, and you only need to eat an exorbitantly priced nest made out of the edible saliva of a family of birds known as the swiftlets.
Some of it, I must add, has a sound basis in science. Most of it is “such bloody rubbish” — as my wife will unfailingly tell her mother right before a humdinger of verbal fisticuffs, which unfailingly leads to one of them storming from the dinner table. Charming stuff.
Now, most of this is harmless bloody rubbish. Some of it, however, is literally very bloody. In that vein, I give you Tan Re Qing, a traditional preparation being promoted by the Chinese government as a treatment for coronavirus infection.
According to Fox News, Tan Re Qing is one of the alleged remedies for COVID-19 being promoted by China’s National Health Commission. The list includes traditional and Western preparations for dealing with the disease. Tan Re Qing is, as Fox News notes, purported to “alleviate respiratory distress, particularly in cases of pneumonia and bronchitis” when delivered by injection, which would be useful, given the symptoms the virus causes.
So, what’s the downside? Well, the ingredients, mainly. Dried fruit? Not bad at all, actually. Goat horn? That’s somewhat iffier — but I’ve had goat dishes before and, if the horns are harvested in a humane fashion, I’m not going to get myself too worked up about this.
Dried bear bile, on the other hand, might be a bit more of a problem from a number of perspectives.
Animal parts are used in many traditional medicines, and the animals that are the source don’t usually give them up willingly.
I haven’t turned into a PETA type because my wife gets triggered by Chinese traditional medicine, but I think everyone getting themselves in a huff on Facebook over “Tiger King” these last few days will concede that killing an endangered animal like the tiger for folk medicine would be rebarbative even if the “medications” derived from its body parts worked.
(They don’t, and there are much better Western alternatives for the most infamous product Panthera tigris provides. It’s indecent to talk about here, but let’s just say it’s supposed to treat male virility and we’d doubtless agree there are certain blue pills that more agreeably treat the problem.)
The Tan Re Qing recommendation, by the by, came after Xi Jinping’s government promised it would “resolutely outlaw and harshly crackdown” on the illegal wildlife trade after coronavirus originated and spread in the Wuhan wet market, where live wildlife was slaughtered and butchered on-site to ensure freshness. These markets — which contain your garden-variety animals as well as rare and exotic ones — aren’t known as paragons of sanitary excess.
Bears, as you might expect, don’t go to a bile donation center in the middle of the woods, get hooked up to a gallbladder pump and get a few dollars for their efforts. Their bile is, for obvious reasons, not extracted in a wet market because the only time a bear was safe in a wet market would be in the unreleased book “Paddington Visits Guangzhou.” (Parts of that were rumored to have been fictionalized.)
Instead, according to National Geographic (subscription required), it’s legal to use captive bears to do the extractions, which are unpleasant to watch as a human, given they involve a form of invasive surgery to get the material from the ursine gallbladder. The bear — and I’m just spitballing here — probably likes it less.
However, this is to assume that Chinese citizens will use the official product.
“There’s a consistent preference among consumers for the wild product, which is often regarded as more powerful or ‘the real deal,’” Aron White of the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, told National Geographic. “So, having this legal market from captivity doesn’t reduce pressure on the wild populations — it actually just maintains demand that drives poaching.”
This is illegal under Chinese law. Also illegal is importing bear bile from Laos, Vietnam, and North Korea. China does that, too. Much of it comes from the Asiatic black bear, products from which are proscribed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which limits or prohibits the import and export of certain plants and animals.
Now, theoretically, there actually is a reason to believe that bear bile might help someone experiencing respiratory distress. The bile contains ursodeoxycholic acid, which can help keep cells alive and reduce inflammation.
The problem is that ursodeoxycholic acid has been available as a synthetic drug for decades; there’s no reason to keep bears in captivity and force them to undergo “surgery” to get the product — unless you believe, unreasonably, that the “traditional” product that contains the drugs is more curative than the “synthetic” product. I laugh and then remember the number of friends who think neti pots can reliably treat seasonal allergies better than non-drowsy antihistamines.
Lest you think this is the only terrible thing on this list, there’s also Angong Niuhuang Wan, a preparation that originally contained ground rhinoceros horn. Chinese law stipulates it now must contain buffalo horn, but that law is generous enough to either allow preparations to falsely advertise they contain rhinoceros horn or allow preparations to accurately advertise they contain rhinoceros horn. Neither is a state of affairs we ought to allow.
Beyond the bloody inhumanity of the rhinoceros horn and bear bile is the bloodless inhumanity of Xi’s regime. Officials with China’s National Health Commission know the likelihood of these products aiding even mild cases of COVID-19 is dubious at best. And yet, that’s not just what they’re promoting Tan Re Qing for.
In fact, according to a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency — which is a non-government organization for environmental activists — Tan Ri Qing is being promoted as a therapy in “severe” and “critical” cases, the kind of cases where seeking medical treatment would be advised, even in a pandemic that overwhelmed a country’s medical system.
The cruelty to animals is matched by a cruelty to humans, who are being sold barbaric folk medicine of dubious quality that could be had in a synthetic form as a therapy for those experiencing “severe” and “critical” COVID-19 symptoms.
Still want to keep praising China’s response?
There is “bloody rubbish,” bloody rubbish and sinister rubbish. This fits under all three categories.
There’s no reason to use real bear bile when a synthetic version of the active ingredient can do whatever bear bile might. It involves a barbaric method of collection that tortures a captive ursine for no good reason. And it’s being promoted by a Chinese government with officials who are almost certainly aware of how ineffective it will be.
This isn’t bird’s nest soup. This isn’t using warm water to kill coronavirus. There are no herbs involved. This is far more evil.
I may not be of Chinese lineage, but I’ve caught up fast, and I know enough to know how animal abuse and dubious traditional medicine won’t heal coronavirus.
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