Of quackery and rhinos…
Earlier this month, stories in the Korean media sparked concerns in China and abroad about – almost unbelievably — the possible processing of stillborn and aborted babies into powder and used as traditional medicinal food supplements.
Chinese authorities have asserted that past and current investigations have not found any instances of such illicit trade, and that Chinese law strictly prohibits such practices and regulates the institutions that handle medicinal materials, including the placenta, which, unlike corpses, has historically been legitimately used to make medicine, although the effects of doing so have never been particularly well explained.
Accusations of child cannibalism have been long practiced as a method of demonizing people and groups all over the world. In the 19th century, missionaries in China were accused of purchasing babies to make medicine and lurid tales of kidnapping and mutilation for the purposes of medicine or sorcery can be found in many cultural and historical contexts.
In the late 1990s, installation artist Zhu Yu’s provoking cannibalism-themed pieces caused a furor in China and abroad. Inside China, domestic conspiracy theorists pointed the finger – naturally – toward Guangdong. Abroad, critics of China used the accusations to paint all of the country in the worst possible light.
The allegorical significance of consumption of human flesh along the lines of Lu Xun’s “A Madman’s Diary” should also not be missed. Children have to be protected from the agents of a decrepit social system hell-bent on eating them, the Madman implores the reader. Of course, the guy himself is mad, and the people around him wish only the best for him, or do they?
Parts of human bodies do indeed get used in traditional medicine in China. Ming Dynasty scholar Li Shizhen devoted a whole section in his monumental Compendium of Materia Medica to various human parts that can be used for medical purposes.
Li himself, though, makes a distinction between human sourced materials that are morally acceptable and those which are repugnant. Li states that human flesh and other abhorrent materials get used by magicians and he only lists them so that the discerning reader can make a decision for themselves.
While the current media and online furor could — and probably should — be dismissed as one of the many rumors and otherworldly accusations floating around the Internet, it does point to a striking failure of science as it relates to traditional Chinese medicine. How to separate the quackery from the possible, particularly in regards to practices which so abominable as to be nearly unbelievable, but also debunking medical myths involving the use of ingredients — such as bear bile, rhino horn, and tiger portions — which do great harm to biodiversity and the protection of endangered species.
Traditional medicinal practices which are popular far beyond China’s borders — but are seen as inherently Chinese by both the PRC government and Chinese society at large — rely on an interpretation of human physiology that is largely incompatible to the conventional understanding of anatomy. It also sources materials that are complex and their chemistry and effects are not well-understood.
Particularly since the founding of the PRC in 1949, Mainland Chinese science has attempted to quantify and discover both the effects and chemical workings of traditional medicinal medicals practices. With increased prosperity in China since the 1980s, domestic demand has increased tremendously exerting pressure on both domestic suppliers and foreign sources of various materials, some of which have led to environmental destruction and a rise in illicit trade.
It is not surprising that desperate people in poor health would be willing to spend significant amounts of money to buy life-saving medicine, however such people should also be protected in terms of the safety of the treatment they are receiving. So should those who purchase remedies for lesser ailments, be it a cold or impotence. They should have the right to know whether there is any chance of actually seeing results from such a treatment.
While the moral impact of a middle-aged man spending prolifically on concoctions to enhance his amorous life seems benign (as long as he stays away from the damn rhinos!), what to make of the 2007 half a year prison term to Guangdong parents who stole another couple’s deceased child to make a healing soup for their sickly child?
While it’s easy to brand their actions as backwardness and ignorance, especially since such practices have been dismissed already by ancient medicinal masters not least Li Shizhen himself, it’s not too much to ask from those in the know, how one is to figure out the difference between medicine and superstition.
This is partially addressed by making a distinction between TCM, which has a long written history, and “folk medicine”, which is passed down generations orally and is usually local. The latter is usually seen as based on superstition, but then again, it can sometimes be tapped for advice.
Although TCM is practiced around the world, the PRC has willingly taken on the role of the main proprietor and the guardian of the TCM, and as such, received justified and unjustified criticism for the harm caused by poaching rare animals, such as tigers and destroying fragile ecosystems when plants are overharvested.
This puts Chinese government officials in the uncomfortable position of having to speak up for a medicinal industry that the Chinese state controls only partially (not least because Taiwan’s position in international conservation cooperation is tedious due to the sovereignty dispute). Demand for medicines that contain rare species or other questionably sourced materials puts pressure on the government to permit such trade. As a result, the trade goes on illegally but somewhat openly.
If sound qualitative data of the clinical results of using rare animal species as medicine would be available, this could be used as a way of addressing demand for them directly. After all, who would buy tiger bone liquor if its benefits for sexual potency were shown to be non-existent?
If it were possible to show (run a T-test, or do whatever else is needed to get one of those pesky ”something significant”) that tiger bones, or baby powder for that matter, kills cancer cells or kills a disease of your choosing, then we could decide if it’s worth looking at selling and buying this stuff.
Of course, as with the white crow which might show up any time to disprove the truth that crows are black, it’s harder to prove that something is not effective than to show its efficacy, because we might simply not have the necessary technology yet.
Oh wait! It is actually possible to run those T-tests. However, in addition to the abovementioned difficulty to disprove things using the scientific method, such results are not being published because either (1) good old publishing bias that preferences positive results rather than inconclusive ones, and more likely (2) because such research is not performed, which has been the view to ethnobothanists I have talked to personally.
Research is driven by funding, and there is little if any money to be made in knowing whether something is not an effective medicine. In addition, when it comes to traditional medicine, there seems to be reluctance to invest in research that rejects tradition, even if it means rejecting superstition.
For now, the man who is willing to shell out cash for tiger bones, is being let down by science, which has not managed (or perhaps not wanted) to assess the efficacy of such treatment. Equally, science has let down the Chinese government which simultaneously faces accusations of lackluster dedication to protecting endangered species while at the same time satisfying the demand for them by the public.
Everyone is left hanging, and when preposterous accusations like this current infant powder cannibalism report arises, have to resort to awkward denials. Even worse, the specter of another Lu Xun masterpiece haunts everyone involved: spending the last bit of money to buy a lousy hunk of steamed bread dipped in the blood of the righteous and vulnerable; and all that for nothing.
Karlis Rokpelnis is a PhD Candidate in Ethnoecology at Minzu University in Beijing and earned his MPhil from the University of Cambridge. Karlis would like to thank two of his fellow students for the discussions which led to this essay.
 See page 189.