Symbolism and Medicine in the Mountains of China

I was flying down one of China’s windy country roads in a taxi, speeding around sharp corners with steep thousand metre-high cliffs on one side and weaving in and around hundreds of tourists and traffic. We were traveling way faster than the average speed limit on Pender Island, my home. I was feeling overwhelmed by the people and pollution, thinking about all the stories friends back home had told me, warning me of such things. China is known as a place of mysticism, but at that moment I was feeling that this mystery was in the past-the new China was just an overcrowded mess in desperate need of order.

I was traveling to Lu Shan, a popular mountain resort town and park, for a rural experience away from the busy Traditional Chinese Hospital, in Changsha, Hunan, where I was interning as an acupuncturist and as a Traditional Chinese Medical doctor in training. I had chosen to journey to Lu Shan because it was a world heritage site and Geo Park set up by UNESCO, one of about 27 protected areas in China. This forested mountain region of the Jiang Xi province is rich in bamboo forests, lakes and wildlife and a place where poets, political heads, and religious leaders have come for thousands of years to relax and enjoy the spectacular vistas, occasionally revealed between the ever-misty mountains.

As we drove, we passed many inscriptions in the rocky landscape of famous poems or sayings that have inspired the Chinese community through the ages. I had come here to relax but was a nervous wreck! I tried to pay attention to my interpreter, who was busy translating the taxi driver’s story. The taxi driver was taking us to a scenic spot called The Three Stepped Waterfall and was explaining how some tourist quietly mentioned that he saw the image of a sparrow in the waterfall and now a few years later everyone in China wanted to come to Lu Shan to see this amazing phenomenon.

On the hike to the Three Stepped Waterfall, I saw how different the parks in China were from those in Canada. The whole trail down to the waterfall was lined with granite paving stones, which was common throughout all the parks I visited. An enormous amount of work, spanning in some parks hundreds of kilometres. I guess that the stones provide protection from erosion-thousands of tourists visit these parks every year- or they protected the people from getting their nice shoes and clothes dirty. Sometimes I would spend 2 or 3 hours climbing stone steps to reach the summit of some cliff that might be called Yellow Dragon Head or something, sweating the whole time from the high heat and humidity, to arrive at the top to see families of Chinese people, between 2 and 80 years old, dressed to the hilt in clothes worthy of a western fine-dining experience, high heels and all!

Poetic symbolism also permeated the environment. Besides the sparrow in the waterfall I saw other symbolic features-two rocks that looked like lovers reuniting after a long separation, or the mountain top that looked like a student holding up his text book in deep concentration. These features were marked by rocks with inscriptions. The Chinese certainly seem to value an active imagination and especially one that holds deeper meaning for the world we live in.

This imagination was already evident to me as I have been studying Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) over the past five years. From TCM theory the human body is an integrated whole, both with itself and the natural world at large, completely united.

Acupuncture points are named after mountains or valleys. Organs are commonly named after images of what they represent, the uterus is named Zi Gong, which literally translates as Child Palace. Diseases are sometimes named after the weather. The function of herbs are often tied to what part of the body they look like, like Ba Ji Tian which looks like a tendon and is actually used to strengthen tendons. In the hospital, I saw thousands of people come from all over China to receive a traditional diagnosis and treatment with the same enthusiasm they had for their parks. Many patients explained that their trust for this natural medicine was based on its long uninterrupted history (over three thousand years) of practice and that it gave good results, often without side effects. The sister hospital to the one I worked in is built over the same spot that an old TCM scholar had his original clinic, over two thousand years ago! Chinese medicine never really had a dark age and the Chinese people are very proud of this. Outside the hospital every morning I saw large groups of people doing Qi Gong and Tai Ji, with movements named after different animals, another link between the human and natural world that drives the Chinese people.

Over time I began to relax and notice how the natural world was integrated into the peoples’ lives around me. I started to look at the rocks and hillsides differently, thinking about deeper meanings than just what kind of material they were made of. I even started to relax with the traffic. Instead of seeing the situation as just chaotic and lacking order, I started seeing more fluidity. The roads became riverbeds and the cars became like water, flowing around any obstacle they came upon. As soon as I used my imagination, China became a place of symbolic imagery that was deeper than just the overpopulation and pollution that I had been warned about.

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