Healing Masters in West Hubei and West Hunan

Things in life are impermanent. And the impermanence is manifested in the irresistible flow of a person’s life.

I continued my journey and traveled to Wuling, a mountainous area in west Hubei in central China. This time, I was exploring both Chinese medicine and the Chu culture (Ancient Chu people used to live in this region).

I had got the idea of exploring the Chu culture while writing the concept proposal for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, for during that process our team members had gone into an intense and interesting discussion over the Yangtse River versus the Yellow River civilizations. So my friend Wei Xiaoping and I made two expeditions to explore the Yangtse River civilization, which was basically merged into the Chu culture.

Over two millennia ago, when Qin unified the many states in ancient China by force, Chu was the most developed country in economy and culture. Archaeological findings so far show that the most exquisite bronze, silk and lacquerware in the pre-Qin era were made in Chu. According to the prophecy of ancients, “Even if there were only threeChu families left, Qin is sure to be toppled by Chu people.” Indeed, Xiang Yu and Liu Bang who overturned Qin were Chu people. Liu Bang was entitled King of Han, so when he unified China, it was called the Handynasty. The Han people (who make up the majority of the Chinese) andHan Zi (Chinese characters) that we speak today can be traced back to theChu era.

Chinese medicine and Chinese culture are inseparable, and have been nurtured in the Yangtse River and the Yellow River regions. But now the Yellow River is almost dried up and the Yangtse River is polluted. Does it suggest the decline of a civilization? If so, is it at its worst moment? Can it rise from the ashes? Will it disappear or rise again?

Ultimately, a civilization is the creation of humanity. So it is all up to the choice of today’s people. Fortunately, we could still see some clear tributaries of the Yangtse River and some remnants of traditional culture in the remote valleys of west Hubei and west Hunan. And these places were right along my route as advised by Monk Shi.

My friend Yang Binqing, an enthusiast of the Chu culture, joined us. Old Yang and I were many years apart in age. He was a renowned calligrapher in Hubei province, and was former Secretary of the Xiangfan Municipal CPC Committee and Vice Chairman of the CPPCC Hubei Province. Wei Xiaoping was a stage director and had lived in France for many years. Naturally, it was more fun for us to travel together. Sure enough, not long after Old Yang joined us, Xiaoping and I learnt a pet phrase from him —“Damn it.” Later on, “damned” simply became an adjective that we used freely and applied very skillfully in all circumstances, which spiced our language during the journey.

Along the way, we appreciated the most ancient bamboo slips (used for writing), and the most exquisite silk and lacquerware in Chinese history. What struck us most were Suizhou bells, a typical symbol of China’s ceremony culture. Pity that such rites and music were all gone in China.

As to rites, in my memory, my grandma was the most polite person. She lived over 90 and passed away naturally. Although she lived in New China in the latter half of her life when there were constant political movements and an endless stream of new words, she used a language of the Old China which prioritized proper ritual conduct. She would walk up to greet each guest and serve them tea regardless of their social status. She called men “Xiang Gong”, women “Tang Ke”, and little boys “Xiao Xiang Gong”. And she was very polite to everyone.

Now, we may have to go to Japan or South Korea to feel the rites of ancient China.

Wu (Witchcraft) and Yi (Medicine) in the Chu Culture

Xiangfan, located in the northwestern part of Hubei province, was called Xiangyang in ancient times. It was the birthplace of Chu, particularly the area of Nanzhang county, which used to be Chu’s capital in its early days. Further west is Mt. Wudang, and further northwest is Shennongjia, where the Shennong people used to live. The Longzhong area in Xiangyang was the hideaway place of Zhu Geliang, one of the most important figures in the Three Kingdoms era. It seems that this region has always had a bond with Taoism. To the north of Xiangyang is Nanyang, where there was the former residence of Zhang Zhongjing, who was revered as Sage of Medicine. The Han River flew from Shaanxi province, went through Xiangyang, the hinterland of Hubei province, and into the Yangtse River. This area is thus called Jianghan Plain, and the intersection where the Han River flew into the Yangtse River is called Hankou.

Going from the mountains in the northwestern part of Hubei province to those in the southwest, the Chu culture gradually merged with the Tujiaculture (Tujia is an ethnic minority in China), and was more original and unrestrained. Along the way, we watched a series of rare cultural heritages including Baomao wine worship, Chu witch dance, funeral dance, hand-waving dance, and weeding songs accompanied by beats of gongs and drums. Unfortunately, these would soon disappear without timely measures to preserve them.

One of the characteristics of the Chu culture is the prevailing witchcraft. Since ancient times, witchcraft and medicine have been closely related. And the better-preserved part of Chu witchcraft could be found in theTujia, Miao cultures in west Hubei and west Hunan. Their medicines have, along with changes in their cultures, been merged with Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism and have thus become part of Chinese medicine.

The most famous one of the Three Gorges is called the Wu Gorge (Wu refers to witchcraft), and one of the mountains in the region is called Mt. Wu. Evolving from it is Wu Shan Yun Yu (Clouds and Rain at Mt. Wu), a romantic description of sexual intercourse, or simply referred to as Yun Yu(Clouds and Rain) in classical novels. Maybe it’s because it all relates toyin-yang interactions.

I met some witch doctors, Taoist doctors and Tujia doctors on the way. And I increasingly felt the diversity and magic of folk medicine. I traveled to Changyang county where many Tujia people lived, and went along the Qingjiang River, another major tributary of the Yangtse River. Finally, I found Mt. Zhongwudang which Monk Shi had mentioned to me. There was an alone Taoist temple standing on the top of a steep cliff and peculiar stones. When I reached the foot of the mountain, I then got to know its name — Mt. Tianzhu (Heavenly Pillar Mountain). There wereTaoist temples halfway up the mountain and at its peak. Each had residentTaoists. I stayed there for a few days, and climbed the mountain every day. From its peak, I could see the green waters of the Qingjiang River winding among mountains like a jade belt. The mountain and the temple at the peak were high and lonely. There I composed a poem:  

Through the misty fog I gaze at Mt. Tianzhu from afar.

There it is, an alone peak reaching high up to the sky.

From the peak I see everything in Heaven and Earth.

Embracing yang, with yin at the back balances yin-yang energies.

A few days later, I went to the river bank and jumped onto a passenger boat going up the river.

“Where are you going?” asked the ticket man.

“What is the last stop?” I asked.

“Yu Xia Kou (the Fishing Gorge),” came the reply.

“To Yu Xia Kou then.”

After I disembarked, I jumped onto a farmer’s motorcycle. The farmer asked me where I was going, and I said I would go wherever there were temples and witch doctors. When we got to know each other better, I decided to stay at his home, and he became my tour guide. There were no new temples there, and he led me to a few old ones. In their heydays, they had incense burning and many visitors, and now there were only wild grass and rocks left. Seeing this, I wrote a poem on my cellphone:

On the barren peak I found only wild grass and broken stairs.

It reminded me of the many believers attracted here in the heyday.

At a farmer’s, I could hear cocks crowing and dogs barking at night.

And not a trace of bell ringing in the ancient temples.

The next day, the motorcycle took me to see a very popular witch doctor. He mainly used what had been passed down over generations — drawing magic symbols and chanting incantations — to cure diseases. When he was not treating others, he was just an ordinary farmer. In his home, I pleaded him to try it on me. Indeed, it worked. Because of the good curative effect, both ordinary people and government officials in the locality were willing to seek his help.

I continued to travel southwest, and arrived at Enshi. There I found several top-class orthopedic doctors. Some of them could use their hands, not surgeries, to move crushed bones back in place. None of them had a professional medical background. They had all inherited their family’s superb medical skills. In spite of the restrictions of the medical system (that someone without a doctor’s license cannot practice medicine), they were well received by the local people for medical resources were scarce there.

All these findings constantly proved my judgment correct — The resources of Chinese medicine are rich and diverse, and most of the best medical skills could be found among folk doctors.

The second time Lao Yang and Xiao Ping traveled with me, we focused on the southwest of Hubei province. In Laifeng county (part of Hubei province) at the juncture of west Hubei and west Hunan, we watched a fantastic Tujia Hand-Waving Dance, and then drank with the dancers. Xiao Ping’s ancestral home was in west Hunan, and after drinking three glasses of liquour, he got so “high” that he began to sing folk songs along with the locals. The more he sang, the more he could drink. Half drunk, he seemed to have found his true Self. His words and predictions became so accurate, almost like magic, that the locals, including the village chief and our driver, came over to seek his predictions of things and their fortunes.

It reminded me of ancient witchcraft and medicine. 巫 (Wu, witchcraft) is a component of the ancient Chinese character毉 (medicine), indicating that witchcraft and medical practice were inseparable in the primal days of the Chinese civilization.

A witch used to be the medium between man and god, almost like a versatile man today who has the talents of a scientist, a meteorologist, a religious expert and a doctor. When ancestors of the Chu people worked in the government of the Zhou dynasty, their official ranks were equivalent to today’s Director of Meteorological Station and chief scientist. Generations of kings of Chu also had connections with witchcraft. Chinese ancient medical classic Huang Di Nei Jing (Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Internal Medicine) has such a poetic touch, because Huang Di (Yellow Emperor) and Qi Bo (his teacher) were both masters of medicine and witchcraft. Qu Yuan (a renowned literary and political figure in the era of Chu) was a great witch who could decipher the Way of the universe. Future generations may find it a challenge to grasp the romance and peculiarity of The Songs of Chu he wrote.

With the help of local CPPCC officials, we watched a play of ancient witchcraft and visited a local witch doctor, a bricklayer who was helping someone build a house when we visited. Although I don’t know witchcraft myself, it is an indisputable fact that witch doctors have cured many diseases.

After visiting many folk doctors and witch doctors in southwest Hubei, I said goodbye to Lao Yang and Xiao Ping. They went back home and I alone continued roving and went to Longshan county in west Hunan.

Longshan was where suppression of bandits took place. Recommended by local CPPCC officials, I found Xiang Yongsheng, a massage therapist expert in curing pediatric diseases. I asked about his medical background and found yet another doctor without standard training. His family had five generations of doctors, and curing diseases was part of the family’s everyday life. Since young, he had learnt from his father unique massage skills for curing pediatric diseases. With these skills applied, a child doesn’t need to take medicine or have injections. Xiang wrote Manual of Massage for Curing Pediatric Diseases. The massage for children is simple. If moms in the world could learn and use it, just imagine how many children would be freed from the need to take medicine and have injections!

A massage therapist curing pediatric diseases with his hands

When I travelled to Yongshun, I finally met a doctor of Chinese medicine with an educational background — Peng Zhenhua. When I asked him which university he had graduated from. The reply was Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (NUAA). What a big leap from aviation mechanics to Chinese medicine! Later, I found out that he had learnt all his medical skills from his father, an expert in witchcraft and medicine.

Peng Zhenhua in his pharmacy

When we continued our chat, I found a similar sad story as that of Xiang Yongsheng. Peng’s national medical license had just been confiscated by the local authority. It was not because his medical skills were poor, but because there was a sudden change in medical policy. He, together with some experienced doctors of Chinese medicine who had been practicing medicine for over a dozen years or decades in the county, suddenly became illegal practitioners of medicine. The heavy blow made them almost tearless, and they had to come together to write a letter of appeal.

I felt much sympathy for their distress, but had no way to help them out. I had so many similar encounters on the way, and I really didn’t know how I should face it. According to statistics, 90% of the graduates from colleges of Chinese medicine work in other fields for they could not cure diseases. Whereas these folk doctors well-received by the local people are labeled as illegal practitioners of Chinese medicine. So it seems that regulations of Chinese medicine should take into account the actual circumstances of these doctors with years of experience.

Acupressure Master Li Lao Wu

During our chat, Peng casually mentioned another folk doctor named Li Lao Wu, who used acupressure to cure diseases. Peng said he could heal diseases faster without the use of medicine.

“Healing without medication? Isn’t he the kind of doctor I want to see the most?” I thought to myself. Thrilled, I pleaded him to phone Li right away. Li and I talked a while over the phone, and when he heard I had come from Beijing, he immediately said, “Welcome to my home”.

The second day, I took a taxi and arrived at his home by the Youshui River. Li was over 50, and was wearing a pair of glasses which made his eyes look deformed. He greeted me with an extraordinary enthusiasm, and began to pour out his healing miracles.

We chatted for a while, and then he found something unusual — I was writing down what he was saying and I could be a journalist from Beijing. I explained to him who I was and his concern was thus erased. Then he got even more excited. He told me that three days before my arrival, he had suddenly got a revelation and said to his wife, “I need a middle-aged man who speaks English and loves Chinese medicine to help me boost my career.” They talked about it for an hour. The next day, he received the phone call from Peng and we talked. On the third day, I was already at his home, just the kind of person he was expecting — a middle-aged man who speaks English and loves Chinese medicine.

Li studied my face, or more accurately, used physiognomy. Then he proposed that I should collaborate with him.

I said, “You don’t have to persuade me. I have come here to look for you.”

He looked puzzled. So I showed him Monk Shi’s text message to me. In it Shi had advised specifically that I should look for Tujia doctors of Chinese medicine in several places in west Hubei and west Hunan.

Astonished, Li exclaimed, “I am good at predictions. Never have I thought there could be such a great master of it. To be frank, you could definitely find me following the Monk’s advice. For my entire life, I have been rafting, fishing and practicing Kungfu in these places. What a master of predictions!”

From then on, he felt sure that we were destined to meet. He invited me to stay at his home and observe how he treated patients with acupressure. Well, great men think alike, don’t they?

I stayed in an alone small room on the top floor. From the balcony, I could see far and wide. There was abundant sunshine and I could have some quiet time to myself. I had spent most of the roving days on the road, and had had no idea where the next stop would be. At his home, I was able to enjoy the kind of leisure that I had never experienced before.

My daily task was to observe how he used acupressure to treat patients, and listen to his healing experiences and stories of the Kungfu and medical worlds. His home was a five-storeyed building by the river. The first floor was used as a pigsty. The four rooms on the second floor were wards, and there were several hemiplegic patients and their family members taking care of them. Rooms on the fourth floor were also wards.

Li said, “Here, patients are carried in. After treatment, they are able to walk out on their own feet. Before being discharged, they need to hobble along the corridor every day to practice walking.”

I kept visualizing these patients: They came in unconscious, with crooked mouth and oblique eyes. And they were totally changed after being treated by Li.

But still, visualization was too abstract, and I could not fill in the minute details. So I said to Li, “All those I’ve seen here have somehow improved their health condition. What I want to see most is how you rescue someone who’s just been carried in here.”

“Let’s see if you have the luck to see it.”

One evening after dinner, Li and I were chatting when we suddenly heard hasty knocks on the door. Li hurriedly called his two sons in a loud voice, “Get ready to work.” Turning to me, he smiled and said, “Your wish is about to be satisfied.”

When we opened the door, a cerebral hemorrhage patient was carried in by a few breathless villagers. Finally, I was able to witness how a doctor of Chinese medicine was to save a patient of an acute stroke. And I recorded the entire process with my camcorder.

The patient was already unconscious, incontinent, had bloodshot eyes, and her systolic pressure had soared to 210. She had been carried to a hospital, but doctors there said they could do nothing and advised her family to get prepared for her death. Then they got to know Li and carried her to his home to see if she had a final chance of survival.

Li’s emergency treatment could seem like a prank in the eyes of doctors at a hospital — he just pinched several spots on the patient’s body with his fingers, and she regained consciousness right away, but she was still unable to speak. It took just about a dozen minutes.

The next morning, he again used acupressure on her for several minutes, and she was then able to speak and eat. On the third morning, after several minutes’ acupressure treatment, the patient was able to get up from the bed and walk. At this point, the total treatment time was less than one hour.

A week later, she was recovered and went home. I visited her at her home the following year, and found she had no sequelae at all. More surprisingly, she was still an active member of the local elders’ waist drum band. Healing with acupressure could be so simple and effective!

Li had begun to practice Kungfu since childhood. He had an unyielding personality and his life was full of ups and downs. He had done so many jobs, almost as many as Wally Simpson (the Australian doctor of Chinese medicine mentioned in Chapter One). His roles included fisherman, rafting man, Kungfu practitioner, government official, factory director, carpenter, blacksmith, bamboo handicraftsman, bricklayer, mechanic, doctor of herbal medicine, dentist, witch doctor, fortune-teller, geomancy expert, rescuer of abducted women (a profession), and he had even worked as a midwife! But what he had been doing the most time were fishing andKungfu. On the rivers of west Hunan, He had learned many great skills, including Kungfu, medicine and witchcraft, from a variety of extraordinary men. And he had even secretly learnt from such “dregs of the old society” as Kuomintang spies released from prison.

His acupressure techniques were evolved from acupressure in Kungfu. And he had already cured many patients with stroke-induced hemiplegia, and cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases. Indeed, most of his patients were carried in and they walked out after his treatment. And they were almost invariably “trash patients” who had been declined treatment at hospitals because they couldn’t provide an effective cure.

For his entire life, Li had mostly been wandering around to make a living. Now he had a big house, children and grandchildren, and he was basically settled in life.  

But my roving is far from its end, or perhaps there will never be an end to it. For I roam around not to make a living, but out of an irresistible, natural urge of my true self. It seems to me roving is life itself, or a way of life — endless roving, to faraway lands, to satisfy a yearning in my heart.

During my university days, my favourite book was The Autobiography of Shen Congwen. Shen’s hometown was in west Hunan, very close to my home in west Hubei. The two regions had a closer bond in the old days when people mostly traveled by water. And even our dialects sound similar. So what I saw and heard in west Hunan made me feel like I was bathed in the warm spring sunshine. I felt much like a nobody becoming a king, or a poor man getting a fortune.

Back in Beijing, I started to promote Li and his magical healing skills. I brought patients in China, and those in the U.S., Taiwan and Hong Kong to his place. It greatly motivated him. Later, I led an international delegation made up of dozens of foreign acupuncturists (including Wally Simpson) to do a field study in west Hunan. When Li’s neighbours saw a large group of foreigners in the village, they admired him even more, which further boosted his confidence to go global.

To better promote acupressure, Li insisted that I learn it from him. Well, I had only planned to write a novel about folk doctors, not to practice medicine and cure diseases. And I was still roving, so I did not give him a definite answer. Later, I brought him to Beijing to meet with doctors, professors, Taoists and government officials, and Monk Shi who had been instrumental for our meeting. During his stay in Beijing, he again proposed that I should study with him for a few months. He said after that I could demonstrate the acupressure skills in cities and that it would help boost his business. After he returned home, he made a few more calls urging me to start learning acupressure with him.

It was then that I found somehow I had already stepped into the world of Chinese medicine.