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Prescribing to Tradition
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Situated in a siheyuan courtyard amid modern mansions lies the Tongrentang Museum. Inside you can find artefacts of Chinese medical culture dating back over three centuries.

Last year, the Tongrentang brand, which produces traditional Chinese medicines (TCM), was named as a national intangible cultural heritage. Inspired by the honor, Beijing Tongrentang Group opened the museum in April to present its unique culture of inheritance and renovation of TCM to the public.

A variety of crude ancient drug making tools, exquisite silver spoons and pots used for making medicine for royal families, and bronze models with acupuncture points for medical training provide insight into ancient medicine practices.

Each exhibit tells a different story of the history of medical practice at Tongrentang. For example, one employee risked his life to rescue the horizontal inscribed board of the pharmacy from a fire.

One of the most notable exhibits is a family tree chart of the pharmacy's owners over 13 generations. Tongrentang was established in Beijing in 1669 by Yue Xianyang who served as a senior physician of the royal court of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The name Tongren is derived from the Book of Changes, meaning "harmonious and selfless" and "treating others equally". These are life philosophies Yue prescribed to.

In 1702, Yue Fengming inherited the business from his father and moved the pharmacy to Dashila, the busiest commercial center in Beijing at that time. In the preface of his book he left to his descendants, he warned them that no matter how complicated the procedures of pharmaceutical production were, they should spare no effort in making the best medicine.  

In 1723, Tongrentang was appointed by the emperor as the sole supplier of medicinal herbs and herbal medicine to the royal court and remained so until the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.

In 1754, the pharmacy fell on difficult times as stakes in the business were sold to outsiders. In the mid 1800s the new heir of the family business, Yue Pingquan, bought back the pharmacy and regained a full control of it.

He promoted the business by mailing ready-made medicine and raising funds by every means possible. He also had a rich understanding of TCM and oversaw the development of about 100 kinds of new medicines. He encouraged all his family members to participate in the pharmacy in a professional capacity, thereby preserving their pharmaceutical formulae.

Xu Yefen, Pingquan's wife, carried the burden of Tongrentang after her husband passed away. Tongrentang continues to grow steadily even during the chaos of the late Qing Dynasty thanks to her management.

In 1954, Tongrentang applied for a joint State-private ownership, a form of socialist transformation of capitalist enterprises at that time. Yue Songsheng, the 13th descendant, served as the manager.

In 1966, Tongrentang became a State-owned enterprise, the time-honored brand also became national property.

Over the centuries, Tongrentang has adhered to its core medical principle, producing drugs in the traditional way by observing the standards of royal court with emphasis on superior quality, according to Jin Yongnian, the spokesman of Tongrentang.

Until recently, it still maintained the traditional drug making techniques inherited orally from past masters.

However, maintaining tradition doesn't necessarily mean that Tongrentang only observed the rules handed down by ancestors, said Jin.

No other pharmacies opened by family members elsewhere could use the title of "Tongrentang", all pharmacies had to adopt the same formulae, and the production of the drugs must not shift out of Beijing.

"These rules played a positive role in controlling quality and preventing counterfeit drugs," Jin said.

Since the 1990s, Tongrentang has set up branches in 14 countries and regions such as Hong Kong, Malaysia, Australia and Britain.

"I believe the best way to spread traditional Chinese medicine culture around the world is to export our best medicine and doctors and convince people of the remarkable curative effects of our medicine," Jin said.

(China Daily May 23, 2007)


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