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The efficacy of Chinese medicine – The Medical Secrets of an Official - bear bile



Type of Spiritual Experience



A description of the experience

The efficacy of Chinese medicine – The Medical Secrets of an Official - bear bile

I hurtle into the heart of China on a modern bullet train. The ride is remarkably smooth, as if we’re floating above the track. Meanwhile, ancient China flashes by, an endless patchwork of farms under a gray winter sky. Peikwen agreed to let me visit the source of the herbs if I wouldn’t reveal the full names of the farmers or their locations, which he and his father, along with their partner Sun Ten, a Taiwanese pharmaceutical herb company, consider proprietary information.

I can say this part of China looks like a version of Kansas—tabletop flat with neatly furrowed fields as far as I can see. But among the wheat, rice, and rapeseed are plots of herbs tended by thousands of farmers. As the global appetite for herbal remedies has grown, Chinese farmers have devoted increasing amounts of acreage to hundreds of medicinal plant species. In 2017 the nation’s medicinal herb-growing industry generated about $25 billion.

When we finally get to one of the fields that yielded PHY906, I’m frankly a little disappointed. Except for the fact that the farmer, Chen, is speaking Mandarin, he might as well have been from Kansas. Wearing muddy boots, a heavy parka, and a baseball cap, he pulls out his iPhone and asks Siri to translate the Chinese name of his crop into English. “Peony,” she answers.

As we tour his fields of peony and skullcap bushes, he explains his crop rotations, soil and water analyses, planting and harvesting protocols. Before shipping the herbs, he says, technicians from Sun Ten perform multiple tests to reconfirm the species; screen for microorganisms, toxins, and heavy metals; and complete other quality checks.

“You’ve heard of farm to table,” Peikwen says. “The idea here is farm to bedside.”

I tell him that sounds like a marketing slogan. But it’s true, says Chen. “Most companies making herbal remedies don’t get them from farms like this. They get them from Bozhou.”

If you buy Chinese herbs , there’s a decent chance that they passed through the eastern city of Bozhou, the center of the Chinese medicine universe. Every day 10,000 traders sell thousands of different products to 30,000 buyers from all over Southeast Asia, all of them jammed in a colossal structure resembling a domed football stadium.

The morning I visit Bozhou, the market is already a raucous hive of commerce. I zigzag up and down endless aisles, one cavernous room after another, each chock-full of barrels, sacks, pallets, and wheelbarrows heaped with wares derived from what appears to be nearly every plant, mineral, and creature on the planet, including exotic items …. A section the size of a grocery store is devoted to the cure-all ginseng root—red and white, wild and cultivated, fresh and dried, ranging in price from a few dollars to several thousand. In the insect section, I stop counting the different centipede species at 11.

Tall and lean, with a mane of silver hair, Iaizzo ticks off a list of mysteries related to bears, which spend up to six months completely inactive yet suffer no ill effects. Their breathing slows to as few as two breaths a minute. Their temperature drops by 10 percent, which would cause hypothermia in a human. They regularly lose more than half of their body fat but no muscle. Their hearts can pause for 20 seconds, but their blood never clots. Humans risk deadly clots if their hearts pause for only a few seconds. And yet if a predator approaches, a bear can wake up to defend its den. “And its heart suffers no damage,” Iaizzo says.

The earliest mention of bear bile in Chinese literature turns up in a 40-volume treatise from the eighth century called The Medical Secrets of an Official. It prescribes bear bile for liver problems, as well as fever, hemorrhoids, and other ailments. In 1902 a Swedish scientist isolated one of the chemicals in bear bile, later named ursodeoxycholic acid, and it’s now used in drugs for liver diseases and gallstones.

The source of the experience

Scientist other

Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Activities and commonsteps



Gall bladder disease
Liver disease