Pain therapy and treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder – researchers take a very close look at Taiwan’s folk medicine

Fang Xing-bin sits on the bench in his office. The wall behind him is plastered with newspaper articles related to the law suit he fought and won. Above, his most cherished trophy – the certificate of a court settlement. Huang Zhong-xin, PhD student at National Taiwan University, Institute of Physiology, admits plagiarism, shall publish an apology in Taiwan’s newspapers and shall pay compensation in the amount of NT$1.500.000 to Fang Xing-bin, the man known to many Taiwanese as “The Mystical Doctor Fang”.

Folk medicine has been popular in Taiwan ever since the first waves of Han-immigration from the Chinese mainland. As described in Denny Roy’s Taiwan. A political history, a book that makes apparent the complexity of the island’s history, the settlers who came weren’t the elites of China, they were the poor. Doctors were rare on the little ships, and contagious diseases caused great agony.

Ceremonies and festivals were held to ward off misery and sicknesses.

These rites, combined with Aboriginal herbal and witchcraft medicine, became the origin of Taiwan’s modern day folk medicine as it is practiced by Fang Xing-bin.

“People came from everywhere to receive my meridian pain therapy, and Huang Zhong-xin made me believe that he was one of them”, Fang explains the bitter feud between him and his adversary. “He convinced me to let him work for me, and then I discovered that he had been hiding data.”

Fang accuses Huang of having stolen the results of his lifetime work, accumulated in over 30 years of research, and having published the findings as his own.

Fang’s and Huang’s story is not merely an example of a conflict between two men, but also highlights the discord of two rivaling schools of thought: folk medicine and western medicine. After the 1999 earthquake, a large part of the population in central Taiwan suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and sought help from folk medicine practitioners. During the SARS outbreak, people desperately took to herbal medicine and religious medicine because SARS was an illness that the medical treatments of western medicine couldn’t cure. Rumors of people who had been healed brought Taiwan’s folk medicine into the focus of research scientists and pharmaceutical companies, and some practitioners of folk medicine felt spied upon.

According to findings of a study conducted by medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman, the Taiwanese are accustomed to seeking three kinds of medical treatment. In case of medical emergencies, the Taiwanese public tends to turn to western medicine. Traditional Chinese medicine is most trusted for the treatment of chronic diseases. When it comes to psychiatric matters, e.g., neuroses, in many instances the help of folk medicine practitioners is sought.

In the eyes of Arthur Kleinman, folk medicine cures as long as practitioners and patients firmly share the same beliefs.

A recent study sheds light on what sort of people practitioners like “The Mystical Doctor Fang”, whose meridian pain therapy seems to have helped many Taiwanese, are.

According to the findings published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, the average Taiwanese folk medicine practitioner is a middle-age man, has a high school degree, works about 50 hours a week and received his training solely through apprenticeship.

The practitioners’ major clientele are adult men and women. A survey showed that even though patients believed that folk medicine was a good thing, they were likely to share the same anxiety: the worry about the lack of regulations concerning folk medicine practitioners’ formal education and training.


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