—— Can you tell us about these Chinese herbs that have become so popular in the US?
Chinese herbal medicines are combinations of Chinese herbs, the efficacy of which has been proven by a history of several thousands of years and experience. The fundamental theory of Chinese herbal medicine is to increase the natural healing power, which humans naturally have, and therefore to become healthy, rather than preventing an aggravation of the medical condition. Made out of natural grass roots and tree barks, Chinese herbal medicines have almost no side effects, so they have attracted the attention of the WHO (World Health Organization) and medical communities around the world. In 1993, Prof. Eisenberg and his colleagues at Harvard Medical
School announced that one out of three Americans had used alternative medical therapies to Western medicine, which drew strong attention throughout the nation. It is true that the consumption of Chinese herbs has been increasing every year not only in Asian countries, but also in the US. Chinese herbal medicines may easily be confused with folk medicines, but they are different by nature. For example, while many folk medicines contain a single crude drug or medicinal plant, Chinese herbal medicines are blends of more than two crude drugs. Another difference is that by blending more than two crude drugs, Chinese herbal medicines eliminate the toxicity of harmful ingredients while enhancing the efficacy of active ingredients. Also, because folk medicines have been passed down by oral tradition, they may have errors. Meanwhile, Chinese herbal medicines are based on a history of more than five thousand years and medical records of tens of billions of people. Along with well-known classics including, “Shennong Bencao Jing,” “Bencao Gangmu,” “Shang Han Lun,” and “Jingui Yaolue,” Chinese herbal medicines have a credibility that has been established through long years of experience.
—— What is the major difference between Chinese herbal medicine and Western medicine?
To put it simply, Western medicine tries to control or cure medical symptoms by using single chemical medicines, whereas Chinese herbal medicine seeks to enhance the body’s ability to recover by increasing its immunity, thereby healing the symptoms. Additionally, while Western medicines are made up of single chemical compounds, Chinese herbal medicines are complex combinations of natural ingredients, that both heal medical conditions and increase the body’s immunity, that is, its resistance to illness. These Chinese herbal medicines also include ingredients which eliminate the toxicity of harmful ingredients; that’s why they have almost no side effects. Since 1960, the integration of Chinese and Western medicine has been promoted in China, aiming at providing patients with better treatments by applying their strengths. In Japan, Chinese herbal medicines have been approved and included for coverage by its health insurance system since 1976. In both countries, the medical community focuses on limiting the harmful effects of medicines by use of Chinese herbal medicines which have few side effects, rather than giving patients long-term doses of Western medication that is more prone to side effects, especially in treating intractable and chronic diseases. In China, as part of this widespread integration of Chinese and Western medicine, Western drugs are sometimes called upon first to quickly alleviate symptoms and then Chinese herbs are used for longer term treatment after the symptoms have been eased. Today, Chinese herbs are often used simultaneously in cancer treatment to assist in lessening the serious side effects caused by radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatments.
—— As a child growing up in Taiwan, what was your dream?
When I was young, I couldn’t afford to think about dreams like becoming such and such in the future, because it was a difficult time. I was born in Taiwan in 1932, the year after the Manchurian Incident, then experienced the second Sino-Japanese War when I was five. Two years later, the Nomonhan Incident (a Manchuria-Mongolia boundary conflict in which the Japanese and Soviet armies clashed in 1939) occurred, and later the Pacific War broke out in 1941. The war ended in 1945, my first year in junior high school, and the Republic of China (the Nationalist Party of China) led by Chiang Kaishek, who had obtained the control of Taiwan from Japan, began his rule of our land. The Nationalist bureaucrats of that time were horribly corrupt and crime was rampant. People were struggling to survive, there was a food shortage, and their frustration led to the so-called February 28th Incident in 1947. After that, the Nationalists, defeated by the Communists in a long-lasting civil war on the mainland, migrated to Taiwan, where they established a new version of the Republic of China. The government became politically oppressive under Chiang Kaishek’s dictatorship. Those believed to be anti-government would be taken by secret police regardless of the facts and in some cases executed after unjust interrogations and tortures. We grew up in the chaos of war and lived in constant fear of being killed, from childhood to young adulthood. Our only hope then was to get out of Taiwan, and studying abroad was the shortest way to do it. People say that in those days ten to twenty thousand young Taiwanese fled to the US as students each year.
—— Did you also come to study in America as a means of leaving Taiwan?
That was my first intention. I was influenced by my father, who had specialized in fermentation engineering including sake brewing, so I majored in agricultural chemistry in college in Taiwan and also studied fermentation engineering. After college, I was then drafted for two years, and then I began my preparations for my graduate studies overseas. I was accepted with scholarships by the University of Illinois, the University of Kansas, and McGill University in Canada, but just when I was about to leave Taiwan with a pack on my back, a turning point came. At my farewell party, a classmate asked me why I didn’t want to study in Japan. Actually, I had also been accepted by the University of Tokyo, with no scholarship, but had given up on going there because I couldn’t afford it. As I explained my situation to him, he lent me money for my studies, adding, “You can repay me when you can afford it...” During Japan’s occupation of Taiwan, there was a policy of assimilation into Japanese culture, which was enforced, so I was required to be taught in Japanese through my first year of junior high school. In my second year, the school language was switched to Mandarin Chinese, the official language of mainland China, although I continued reading Japanese books and romanticized about Japan to a certain extent. Imagining student life in the Meiji, Taisho, and early Showa periods, I wanted to experience life in Japan at least once. In addition to my kind friend’s help, my belief that I may never have another chance to enjoy student life in Japan if I missed this opportunity took me there in September 1960, with the intention of studying if only for a half year before heading to the US.
—— How was your life in Japan that you had desired so much?
I took going to Japan too lightly, which gave me a hard time there. Since I thought I would only stay there for about half a year due to my limited budget, I started preparing for studying in America right after arriving in Japan. I went to the American Embassy to obtain a student visa, but was told that my passport was valid only for visiting Japan and would require an additional approval from the Chinese Embassy to be able to visit the US. In those days, students’ beliefs and ideologies were under strict scrutinization and our whereabouts were under strict surveillance by the authorities. Unaware of these circumstances, I made my way to the Chinese Embassy right away, expecting to receive a stamp immediately. But, at the Office of the Cultural Counselor, which had actually been in charge of monitoring beliefs and ideologies of students abroad, I discovered that they refused to give me a stamp. Even worse, they endlessly questioned me and my intentions, with questions such as, “Why are you dropping out of Japan’s best school, the University of Tokyo?”and I replied, “Because I don’t have enough money,” and “Why aren’t you a member of the Nationalist Party?” to which I replied, “Because I am studying chemistry and not interested in politics.” I ended up going to the Embassy for half a year. To this day, I am still not sure what they wanted from me, but I would say they were probably waiting for me to use up all my money, so that they could make me work for them as a spy. Actually, they told me I could be paid $100 a month by a sponsor. I declined it, of course, but then my money really was running out and I had almost nothing. On one such day, I had came back to my dormitory from the Embassy as usual and I overheard a conversation between some students and Mr. Goichi Hozumi, then dormitory supervisor and former board chairman of the Asian Students Cultural Association, about a Rotary Club scholarship. So I talked to him after other students had left and learned that any foreign student could apply for a Rotary scholarship. As I told him about my situation, he even agreed to endorse me as well. Everything proceeded smoothly and I was eventually granted a scholarship of $100 a month. Research assistants were only being paid $50 a month, so people said to me, “You have been transformed from a poor student into an aristocrat.” With that scholarship, I did not have to rush to study in the US and so I extended my stay in Japan. In 1963 when I completed my master’s program, I got my US-visit stamp issued on a same-day basis, because the Cultural Counselor’s office had already been closed. Then I made my way to the University of Kansas, which had been waiting for me, reserving my scholarship.
—— Were you already involved in Chinese herbal medicine when you came to study in the US?
No. I received a master’s degree in microbiology from the University of Kansas, and then a doctorate in pharmaceutical sciences from the University of Tokyo, so I had nothing to do with Chinese herbal medicine then. After that, I came back to the States and spent my days teaching and researching in New York, Connecticut, and Boston. Then one day in 1986, while visiting California for an academic conference, I received a phone call from the president of a Chinese herb company in Taiwan that owned a research institute in Long Beach. Since President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, Chinese herbal medicine had been attracting public attention in the US. As a result, a number of Chinese herb companies from Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Korea had come to the US to market their Chinese herbal medicines. However, because of its difficult terminology, inconsistency in English translations of their terms, and lack of easy-to-follow books, there had been much confusion about Chinese herbal medicine in the US. This company, which had launched its business ten years earlier, was still facing the same problems and seeking solutions. The company’s president contacted me because he had been convinced that I would be the only one who knew medicine and pharmacy as well as being fluent in Japanese, Chinese, and English. Moved by his enthusiasm and his plea, “Please help us for the sake of Taiwanese,” I decided to play my part to help promote Chinese herbs. Our hard work paid off; we increased the number of the subscribers to the monthly magazine issued by the research institute from less than 100 to 2,000 within barely half a year. Isn’t it interesting how we come across people and things! This is how I entered the field of Chinese herbal medicine.
—— How did you start your association with the Japanese community in the US?
After getting involved in Chinese herbal medicine, I published “Immune System and Chinese Herbs” in 1989 in which I wrote about Chinese herbal medicines relevant to the immune system. This book was actually written in English and targeted to Americans. But, because it seemed written in Japanese with some Kanji characters on its cover, I guess, a Japanese TV station, United TV, asked me to appear as a guest speaker on one of its programs. After I introduced my book on the program, I was bombarded by phone inquiries. As I explained to the callers that the book was in English, I realized that a lot of Japanese were interested. A few days later, when I visited a friend’s home, I found a manager of TV FAN was also there. My friend introduced me to the manager, adding,“This is a Chinese herbal medicine expert who has appeared on United TV.” The manager asked me to write an article for TV FAN and on a later day I received an official request from its president. Later on, I got more assignments from other Japanese magazines and papers, including Gateway USA, US Town Journal, and the San Diego Yu-Yu. Currently, 90% of my work is related to the Japanese community.
—— Can you tell us about your dreams for the future?
In the 1920s, by advocating the vernacular literature movement at Peking University, Hu Shih started a revolution in Chinese literature. His father, Hu Tieh-hua, was county governor as well as commander in chief of the military in Taidong County, Taiwan, at the end of the Qing Dynasty. My grandfather served as his chief secretary. And my grandmother spoke in eight languages of the Gaoshan Nationality, the aboriginal people in Taiwan, so they liked her very much. It was not only because she was the wife of the governorﾕs chief secretary, but also because she knew everything about Chinese herbal formulas. When sick, the aboriginal people could only pray to gods. To help such people, my grandmother would pick up medicinal plants and take care of those who were ill, so they admired her as if she had been a god and gathered around her everywhere she went. She would walk to the mountains and take the entire day to pick herbs, but she never received even a penny for it. As a child, I thought, “She should get money at least for her labor and time...,” but she would say, “If I received money, my doing would be no longer be a good deed.” I have come to understand her stance now. Neo-Confucian Chu Hsi once said, “Do not stop doing a good deed just because it is small” in his book “Elementary Learning” (a textbook collecting excerpts from works of early Confucians, including Confucius and Mencius, as well as other wise men whom he had studied). I believe that’s how I live today. No matter how small it is, a good deed is a good deed. I would like to continue doing good deeds in any form, including publishing as many useful books as possible while offering free consultations about Chinese herbs.