It's been four weeks since I started my 12 week artist residency in Chongqing China, and I am having a blast.
This past week I found out that one of my fellow artists regularly learns and practices "Kung Fu", 功夫 (Gong Fu). Now, we've all seen Kung Fu in the movies - - scenes of Jackie Chan flying around the silver screen throwing punches at 1000 miles an hour, but this past weekend I started to learn what traditional Kung Fu really means.
At 6am on Wednesday morning I took a 30-minute cab to a public park to meet 李少皓 (Li shao hao) or "Teacher Li" 李老师 (Li lao shi) as he is referred to by his students. Kung Fu class starts promptly at 7 am every day and there are always many students in attendance. Because I was a foreigner, the teacher wanted to show me a few moves to give me an idea as to what Kung Fu is all about. I said that I didn't know the first thing about Kung Fu, so I spoke to the teacher.
"Please be nice to me." I said to the Kung Fu Master.
Uh huh.. Yea right. If the picture in your mind is something like, "Chinese Kung Fu master destroys novice American in Kung Fu practice", then you absolutely hit the nail on the head. To add insult to injury, other than the students of the class, there was a large group of spectators looking on. I was told by the other students that many people come to watch practice every day but I'm fairly certain that they just wanted to see a foreigner get schooled by a Kung Fu master. Maybe this is because I watched a taxi driver and a cyclist stop on the side of the road just to come over and watch.
So how much does this class cost? Well...nothing. Taking classes in Kung Fu is free. But why? I wondered the same thing...and the answer is awesome.
Let me give you a little background because the history of Kung Fu is old...really old. According to Chinese legend, variations of Kung Fu go back some 4000 years. The Martial Art was used as a means of teaching soldiers self defense, but in order to master the art, practitioners were encouraged to incorporate 气 (qi) or "life-force" into their training through use of meditation. One such meditation is called 太极拳 (Tai ji quan) or what we know as "Tai Chi".
At the birth of Kung Fu, many of the masters were high ranking military officials but as those members began to retire, they would continue to train people in the martial art so more and more civilians began to take up the practice. Due to the fact that the civilians who had the most time to practice were usually wealthy noblemen, when the noblemen became masters they didn't need to make money from teaching so they taught the students free of charge. Because of this exchange, teaching Kung Fu historically became free for the people. The coolest part of this fact is that most masters abide by this rule even to this day.
But times change, and now most Kung Fu masters are not wealthy noblemen any longer. So, if lessons are free, then how does this Kung Fu Master make a living?
The answer is simple. Like many other masters, Teacher Li is also a practitioner of Chinese medicine. Although he has no western style MD training, many still call him "doctor" so for the purposes of the story, I call him "doctor" as well.
This was the part of the day that absolutely blew my mind. For the past 50 years, Doctor Li has been running a Chinese natural medicine clinic out of a small 800sq. ft. building not far from the city center...And business is thriving. To us Westerners, this business looks nothing like what we picture when we think of medicine...and I mean nothing. No sterilized floors. No office check-in area. No name tags, white coats, scrubs, stethoscopes, tongue depressors, blood pressure gauges, you name it. Growing up in America, I have developed a notion of what eastern medicine is like, but I suspended my judgments so as to keep my mind open and just learn.
Through the entrance to the building, you can see many people waiting to be seen by the doctor. Being that there is no waiting room, patients simply sit on a bench or stand around his desk until they can be seen by him. The concept of privacy was nowhere to be seen in this room. Patients who were meeting with the doctor would answer his questions to the ears of all of the surrounding bystanders. If it was your turn to meet with the doctor, before he even talks with you, he will ask for your hand, feel your pulse with his fingers, and do something that I am told is of the utmost importance among practitioners of Chinese Medicine. While you sit quietly, the doctor will scan your face then look directly into your eyes checking to see if you look well.
I learned that this clinic has a very close relationship with its patients. Not only because someone told me, but also because I witnessed it first hand. Unlike western patients who visit their doctors only once or twice a year, these patients visit regularly sometimes more than twice a month. But it was abundantly clear to me through watching the various interactions that this doctor truly cared about patients and that they really trusted him too.
After the doctor hears from the patients, he consults with his colleague to decide a plan for treatment. Just like western doctors, this clinic uses prescription pads to organize the treatment. But unlike western medicine, all of the treatments are completely natural, never in pill form, and always delivered to the patients in a plastic bag. And the pharmacy? Nope, you don't need to go anywhere else. This is a one stop shop.
After a patient receives the prescription, they will stand from their seat, walk a few short steps, and then give the prescription to one of the two assistants working behind a counter. The first assistant collects the prescription, and begins sorting through hundreds of different specifically labeled drawers in an 8ft x 30ft series of cabinets in order to find the necessary ingredients -- Always making sure to carefully weigh the parts out with an analog scale.
When the ingredients have been appropriately measured out according to the prescription, they are then emptied from the metal troughs into separate plastic bags. From here, the first assistant hands the prescription to the second assistant for calculation of payment. "Let me just click through this computer to view your medical history and run your insurance through to calculate the final payment..." NOPE.
The second assistant uses an abacus to calculate the cost. AN ABACUS! Her hands were moving so fast that I almost couldn't capture a clear image of her working. Additionally, credit cards won't cut it here -- nor will WeChat pay (the preferred mobile payment method). In this business, cash is king. So break out those Benjamins (actually Mao Zedong is on the 100RMB bill, but you catch my drift).
A slight side note, the bills in China vary in dimension based on value. I actually had to go buy a new wallet to just to carry them. Pictured above is the largest denomination bill, 100RMB, along with a US $20. Behind that is one of the lower value bills, a 5jiao note (or 1/2 of one RMB). Currently, 100RMB = 14.40USD, so the 5jiao bill is equal to $0.14. The smallest bill in circulation is 1jiao or $0.07.
The smallest value coin in circulation is called 1 fen, or 0.01 RMB which is equal to 0.0014 USD. It's pretty rare to see except supermarkets because it's even more useless than a US penny. The only thing you can buy with 1jiao is a candy the size of a starburst and 1fen has 50 times less value than that.
I guess a fen saved is still a fen earned.
Ok, back to the story. Although many patients will be given prescriptions for treatment here, if your ailment is more immediate then the doctor will rise from his seat and bring you to a back room where cupping therapy or acupuncture can be administered. On the day I visited, I was lucky enough to able to witness an older woman's acupuncture treatment.
Oh yea, and what about privacy? Well the doctor, patient, and about 10 other bystanders were all more than happy show me. Especially the doctor, who made sure that I capture a photo of the needle, all the while puffing away on a cigarette.
"I smoke to prevent people from fainting. The smell helps them stay awake."
After some time, the doctor's assistant came over to help out so the doctor could meet with another patient. Before I was ushered over to the front room, I was able to capture a shot of the assistant's hat. It's not infrequent to see Chinese people wearing clothes with vulgar, nonsensical, or just downright strange English text. But hey, we do the same thing with Chinese tattoos.
Before leaving the clinic, I had chance to talk with the doctor about his patients. Lining the inside wall, he gestured to many photo frames filled with pictures of previous patients who he has healed over the years. Some from blindness, some from paralysis, and even some from cancer. He seemed genuinely proud of the stories and the other people in clinic watched on nodding their heads in agreement as his hand motioned from photo to photo.
Above each photo frame is large hand-stitched banner, a countless number of them stacked upon one another. I didn't know what they were until I translated the text but I believe them to be gifts given by patients, praising he doctor for healing them from their sickness.
Beyond the truth of whether or not Chinese medicine is real or fake, l left the clinic with a strange feeling. In Western medicine, many outcomes of natural medical treatments are chalked up to the placebo effect, but maybe belief really IS an important factor in medicine, regardless of scientific or natural treatment.
If being in China has taught me anything, it's that all things need to find a balance.
AND that pickled cabbage and noodles is quite possibly the best dish ever...but only ever other day. Otherwise it's not special :)
Thanks for reading. More stories to come.