Stressed-out lawyer Wang Hui enters the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) clinic and is greeted by the distinct smell of burnt mugwort wafting through the decorated rooms.
The 30-something woman complains to Dr Fan Changwei about her unbearable stomach pain and a perplexing headache. Fan offers her tea, as he does for every visitor to his clinic, to calm the mind.
Fan asks questions about the busy Beijing woman's lifestyle and then instructs one of his apprentices to apply the heat of a smoking herbal stick over three acupuncture points.
Fan says Wang is a typical patient with "excessive liver fire". "When the fire rises to the head, she feels a headache. On the other hand, people with heat in the upper body commonly have cold in the lower body, which causes stomachaches. The treatment will lead the upper heat downward and push the lower cold out."
About an hour later, Wang steps out of the treatment room feeling totally refreshed. She vows to go in for a more systematic health check-up after this Spring Festival.
Wang was treated through moxibustion, a type of heat therapy used in TCM to stimulate qi, and the circulation. A burning stick of mugwort is positioned over the acupuncture points.
Mugwort, also known in the West as Amber or St John's Wort, was used in ancient China to keep evil away. Even the Christian prophet John the Baptist was believed to wear a belt made from this herb for the same reason.
The herb, which is extracted from a daisy-like plant, has been the focus of superstition but TCM has applied the crushed daisy-like plant to treat patients for more than 1,000 years.
The original Chinese term for acupuncture was Zhen (needling) and Jiu (moxibustion).
Compared to acupuncture treatment, moxibustion received far less attention. However, some TCM doctors, such as Fan, are devoted to moxibustion practice.
Clearing the cold
The moxibustion stick is created by rolling mugwort powder into a piece of paper. The burning stick is waved a few centimeters over the acupuncture points.
Heating one such point takes between 10 to 15 minutes until the skin becomes slightly reddish. During the process, mugwort vapors and other TCM ingredients enter the pores of the skin.
According to Fan, moxibustion has benefits that modern science cannot explain but can be clearly felt by people receiving it. Knowledge of the acupuncture points is the key.
For example, when heating the Yang Guan point, which is located on the waist between the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebra, the patient can feel his entire stomach becoming warm. Also, the heat spreads from the waist to the buttock, legs, down to the feet.
Moxibustion is commonly used for people who have a cold. TCM believes that cold in the body results in slow flow or even stagnation of qi, thus causing different ailments. The heat from moxibustion can move qi, quicken the blood, and expel cold and dampness.
According to doctor Fan, moxibustion therapy is effective in treating diarrhea, asthma, rheumatism, inflammations, hypertension, menstrual disorders and cramps, bone wound, stomach and abdomen pains.
He cited menstrual cramps as an example of effective treatment with moxibustion.
A majority of women nowadays have a cold constitution. This is partly because of dieting and wearing fewer or thinner clothes, according to Fan. As a result, their menstrual blood tends to become stagnant owing to cold, thus causing pains. When the cold is dispersed, the blood flows smoothly again and the pain symptoms disappear.
More than medical practice
Practicing moxibustion is not simply a medical practice and practitioners should be well-versed in traditional Chinese culture and morals, according to Fan.
"Moxibustion is not simply burning a stick of mugwort, but manipulate the heat with the mind. Any mental disturbance in the process affects the cure. Only the well-cultured practitioner can concentrate on the therapy," he said.
He tells his apprentices that healthcare practitioners should learn how to preserve their own health first because the patients often view their doctors as their role models.
Modern life seems to have little effect on Fan's own life. He observes strictly a traditional schedule of work and rest. He goes to bed at about nine o'clock every evening. He barely watches any TV. Early in the morning, he leads his apprentices to play Tai Chi.
The ancient Chinese cultural classics, such as The Analects of Confucius, Tao Te Ching, and The Yellow Emperor's Canon of Internal Medicine are a must-study for the apprentices. They also practice Chinese calligraphy.
Every Friday afternoon, all the workers in Fan's clinic sit together to learn the Apprentice Regulation, a textbook of etiquette and morals for the youngsters. For example, respect for their parents, caution, keeping to their word and not tolerating waste.
Doctor Fan believes that the key to good health is a calm mind. When the mind is calm, the flow of qi and blood is smooth and this keeps diseases at bay. Moxibustion helps restore this harmony.
(China Daily January 17, 2007)