|In an east China traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) hospital, Briton Kate Steiner is watching a doctor take pulses, examine tongues and ask about symptoms. |
Steiner, 25, has been studying TCM at Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine in Jiangsu Province for two years. She frequents the provincial TCM hospital to learn from TCM practioners during her summer break.
"I like to accompany my friends who are also overseas students to visit TCM doctors. I ask questions and take notes of prescriptions doctors give to my friends," says Steiner. She is one of 1,300 overseas students who make up more than 10 percent of the university's 12,660 students.
Overseas students graduating from prestigious TCM universities across China every year are becoming known as the foreign "heirs" of the country's thousand-year medical heritage.
Before TCM was systemized in the 1950s under the People's Republic of China, it was only practiced within inherited family systems.
At that time, TCM gurus hid in locked rooms to mix "secret formula" medications.
It took two years of language studies to enable Steiner to understand most of her classes.
She says she was inspired to study TCM by Giovanni Maciocia, an Italian practioner of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine.
Maciocia also trained at Nanjing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, before practicing in London and compiling English TCM textbooks.
"I also got support from my uncle who's a Western medicine doctor. He used to cast doubt on TCM, because it cannot be explained with scientific methodology, but later he found TCM therapies did work in treating stroke sequela when he visited a TCM center in Germany," she says.
More foreigners come to China to study Chinese medicine
She wants to run her own TCM clinic back home after graduation, but she is one of a small number of Westerners who understand and trust TCM.
Though traditional Chinese medicine is accepted in mainstream medical care throughout East Asia, it is considered an alternative medical system -- if not quackery -- in much of the Western world.
Traditional Chinese Medicine includes a range of practices such as Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture and massage therapy. It's based on the philosophy that the human body contains several interconnected systems which work in balance to keep the body healthy.
Professor Di Liuqing, of the Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine, says the TCM philosophy is difficult to comprehend for people from other cultures.
"According to TCM theory, health is seen as a state of balance between the yin and the yang, metaphysical terms that are hard to explain, and quite different to anatomy-based Western medical science," says Di.
As practices identical or similar to TCM exist elsewhere in East Asia, it's easier to accept for students from this region.
Panahafhi Poru, a Japanese student of Western clinical medicine at Peking University Health Science Center, took an elective class in TCM this semester.
She has faith in TCM because it has helped her own family.
"When I was young, my older brother lost his hearing in a car accident. Doctors said the deafness would be permanent," she recalls.
"My mom took him to a TCM doctor in Japan who prescribed exuviae (cast-off skins) of cicadas. My brother followed the prescription and gradually recovered his hearing, but I don't know why it worked."
Despite her faith in TCM, Poru only uses TCM to supplement Western treatments.
"I take traditional Chinese anti-viral drugs when I get a cold, but only with Western medicines. I believe TCM can alleviate sickness, but for a cure, we still have to take Western medicines in most cases," she says.
Park Jiho, a South Korean studying TCM at Shandong University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, has no problem in accepting TCM because it has much in common with traditional Korean medicine.
He is an intern in the acupuncture section of the provincial TCM hospital of Shandong during his summer break, and will begin post-graduate studies in acupuncture and massage therapy when college returns.
"As I am learning from practioners, I understand TCM needs a lot of hands-on experience," says Park. "Merely following books doesn't work.
"A patient suffering leg pains came to us the other day, and my tutor administered acupuncture at a point that was not the one textbook tells us.
"My tutor told me it came from her own observation through decades of practice, and I think that is the striking difference between Chinese and Western medicine," says Park.
"What also interests me is that TCM applies a holistic approach to treat patients. If a patients suffers a headache, the doctor won't just fix his head problem, but also associated organs."
However, Park says he cannot practice TCM at home as the government of Republic of Korea (ROK) does not recognize a college degree in TCM.
"Still, I want to introduce TCM to more South Koreans and I believe the government will liberalize regulation of TCM sooner or later."
China institutions are working with schools and institutes abroad to train more TCM "heirs."
Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine is about to receive 45 students from the Acupuncture School of Oslo (AKHS) next month. They will take internships at the university's affiliated hospital.
Zhang Xu, deputy dean of the university's overseas education school, says short term exchange programs are also scheduled next year.