A Portrait of an Unconventional Herbalist
Late night December 7, 2012, an email alerted me, by Dr Robert, sent to a hundred recipients. He sent a personal letter to the Chinese medicine community that respecting Dr Zeng's will, no memorial service will be held. He explained how Dr Zeng is like Prometheus to pass the fire to people in need. When he was lost in the desert, Dr Zeng appeared and showed him the way, but left in a hurry without too much words.
“在我的心目中我把老师比作普罗米修斯，那位盗火的圣人。他传了已经将近没落了的《经方》的真知给我们，对我来说尤其如此。正当我在中医的荒漠中找不到方向，心中迷茫的时候，曾师出现了，他指了方向给我，给了我水喝，未及多语就这样匆匆而去。” -- Robert Xie
It is not exaggerating when I write this now that, the landscape of TCM hasn't changed much, fertile, hopeful, still full of arguments but no unified grounds. The Artemisinin discovery work by Chinese researchers in early 70s won a Nobel prize in 2015, that just touch the surface of Chinese medicine reservoir. Western medicine research methodology led to the discovery of one ingredient that effectively treats one disease, while Chinese Herbalist uses hundreds commonly available herbs to treat many diseases. The framework of next generation herbal formula research is still a difficult task, exactly because of the complexity and deviation of Western medicine and Chinese medicine at physiology and pathology level. Some people try to establish some kind of mapping at disease categorization level, but totally separate at the treatment level. When I research philosophy of medicine written in English, there are only 4 or 5 books currently available, one of them stretch a little to cover integrative medicine. The recent trend in China is also an awakening to study traditional Chinese medicine, from the realization of rising public health crisis and western medicine shortcomings.
Back to the story of Dr Zeng, a legendary Herbalist who didn't attend a day of medical school.
Zeng Rongxiu (曾荣修) was born in a renowned family in East Sichuan in the war struggling China in 1927. His family highly valued education, once donated a local school to the government in exile. He vaguely remembered he had a high school teacher from Ohio, that's why he spoke fluent English before he moved to LA. Under the background of fighting Japanese in WWII, he attended Whampoa Military Academy (like West Point), graduated and fought the Korean war for 6 years.
In 1958, he left the army and later moved to Chengdu with a secretary job in Huaxi Medical University. He started to learn traditional Chinese medicine under his sister's influence. His sister happened to be a apprentice of a TCM master Tian Heming (田鹤鸣). This is the beginning of Zeng's inheritage from Tian. When the Culture Revolution began, he was propelled to the rural area, where Chinese medicine is often needed. When he had the chance to return to Chengdu in 1972, he transferred to Chengdu No 7 People's Hospital as a TCM clinician. In April, Tian as a 80 year old man was badly wounded in the violent movement against intellectuals. Under enormous political pressure, normal people didn't even dare to save him. Zeng, took a great deal of personal risk, with the symbolic protection of a veteran and war hero, brought Tian to another healer. From then on Zeng studied TCM from Tian until he passed away 9 years later.
Dr Zeng continued on to become a famous herbalist in China. Starting 1990, he had the first Caucasian disciple, Heiner Frühauf, who gave up a Harvard teaching career to study TCM. Zeng showed him the formula to cure a pertussis child, 2 type of herbs, cost only 0.13 Yuan (1 Yuan RMB = 0.1 USD back then). Later when Zeng visited Heiner in US, he worked on a formula to help HIV patients recover from digestive disorder and impaired immune functions. It was sold to 16 countries, at a time lacking of effective clinical drugs for HIV. Heiner later founded Classic Chinese Medicine department at National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon.
Another early Caucasian disciple is Arnaud Versluys, who learned TCM in China from undergrad to PhD, hence speaks fluent Chinese. He was recommended to Zeng by another famous practitioner Liu Lihong. Arnaud remembered it like a father-son relationship, he always biked to Zeng's home to have dinner then walked with him to the clinic and treated 15-20 patients every night. It went on for 4 years, Arnaud amazed by how Zeng tirelessly served the patients 7 days a week, no matter the weather was hot or cold. This traditional way of apprenticeship deeply influenced many more students like Arnaud.
In mid 90s Dr Zeng visited US and Europe, giving lectures and established a school of herbalist followers around 200 people in total. He received many awards and honorary professorships outside of China. He then immigrated to US, lived in LA since 2005. Till 2010, he advised more than 30 apprentices in Northern California, including many established acupuncturists here in bay area. Dr Robert Xie and Tao Xie are the last two, went on compiled and published the first case study book from Dr Zeng's manuscripts, 伤寒田曾流传习录.
Master Tian had a nick name in Chengdu, 田八味, means Eight Herbs Tian. His herbal formula is simplified to the minimum, usually not exceeding 8 types, and right on target, effective in a few days. Zeng summarized his Shanghan formula style (伤寒派田曾流) as following 5 characteristics:
1. Target the root cause, first remove/reduce the pathological conditions. to help body recover (祛邪为要，邪去正自安)
2. Use dedicated formula and minimum dosage (用药量少而专)
3. Pulse diagnosis is critical to choose the formula (断症凭脉学，有是脉用是方）
4. Mainly treat one meridian for best response (六经辩证多独取一经，药走专经一荡除邪)
5. Digestive system is the cornerstone for recovery and long term health (以脾胃为根本，邪去后必顾脾胃以康复)
Unfortunately, I still see patients come in with other herbalists' prescriptions, more than 40 types of herbs, weighs half a pound, going all directions, boost-yang, supplement-yin, move-blood, repel-water. One wouldn't know what the total effect will be, improving health or rather disturbing the liver/kidney metabolism.
Some Chinese medicine doctors still like to advertise ancestral (祖传中医) as an endorsement. The business goes down in family, and there are certain advantages to be in the business for generations. But the true knowledge goes down in academic inheritance, by reasoning, rigorous study, and practice. Most importantly the knowledge should be forever open for public scrutiny.
One of my friends always challenges me, saying that he can't trust a discipline that the major text （伤寒论）is written more that a thousand years ago. Well, medicine shifted from heavier philosophical stance in technical inferior ages to current not so strictly sensed 'scientific' but more culturally and financially biased practices. Interestingly, Alex Broadbent used common cold and coughing as the examples of Mainstream Medicine is not more potent than Western Medicine of 1000 years ago, in his 2019 book Philosophy of Medicine. Half of Shanghan Lun is a treatise on treating common cold, which is more lethal than nowadays. Those formulas are still effective today, although the patient's complaints changed to "felt chilly sitting in an office area with full blast of AC". Ancient doesn't mean mostly wrong, modern doesn't mean mostly right, especially in medical fields. "For many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias." -- from a 2005 paper by a Standford researcher Ioannidis, Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.
Of course the bad side of a "learned" tradition is to revere the past or to resist change. When the problem set evolves so quickly, we need to keep expanding the knowledge, remove errors and find new applications. Down to the point of trusting traditional Chinese medicine herbal formulas in Mainstream Medicine dominance, in my opinion, we realized there is a long way to go in today's battle with high stress, environmental factors, dietary caused health issues, not only in US, in China, more or less all over the world. It would progress unarguably to formalize solutions that work in majority cases and have less side effect than mainstream drugs. Although I never had the chance to meet Dr Zeng in person, his life stories inspired me to pursue such a career in TCM in 2013, starting with apprenticeship at Robert & Tao Herbs and Acupuncture.