copyright Victoria Mary Clarke 2006
This article appeared in the Irish ‘Sunday Independent’ in 2006
Xiaolan Zhao did not intend to become a doctor. But she was born in China, and her career was chosen for her. But Xiaolan is not complaining. Indeed, she is grateful. Because it is the unique combination of a Chinese heritage, steeped in traditional, natural remedies, coupled with an education in Western medicine and her strong desire to communicate with the world that has brought Xiaolan to where she is today. She is now a doctor of both Western and Traditional Chinese Medicine, with a successful practice in Canada, and she has just written a book on traditional Chinese medicine for women.
It is difficult, she says, for Westerners to imagine the kind of life she had, growing up in Communist China.
‘I was forced to stop school, I wasn’t allowed to read books, all the books were burned. My parents were sent to work on a State farm, so I was only allowed to visit them at weekends. I lived alone and had to cook for myself, even as a child.’
But as one thing is taken away, something better comes along to replace it.
‘My grandmother lived nearby and because I was alone, she pretty much brought me up. And it is because of my grandmother that I am as confident as I am. She always gave me courage and unconditional love. I would make mistakes, but she would never criticise me. She never made me guilty!’
When she was seventeen, Xiaolan was sent to work on a farm.
‘ I was terrified at first, I thought I would have to spend my future there and marry a farmer! I couldn’t even think of it! But because my grandmother taught me so much positive thinking, I really enjoyed the farm. They taught me all about the different plants, which herbs to use for colds, which herbs for periods. And they really treated me well. I cried when I had to leave!’
The young Xiaolan wanted to become a journalist.
‘ My father was a broadcaster, and I love to write and I love to tell people the truth,’ she says.
Even though she had never considered becoming a doctor, she was glad to be allowed to study medicine.
‘I wasn’t even scared of the blood!’ she says. ‘Other people would be fainting and running out of the room, when we had to cut people open, but I didn’t notice the blood.’
Having qualified as a surgeon, Xiaolan took a degree in Chinese medicine. She moved to Canada, to continue her studies. There, she noticed that attitudes to women’s bodies were very different to those in China.
‘When I came to Canada, I wasn’t concerned with my physical appearance. I based my self worth on my ability to succeed at whatever I undertook. But after living in Toronto I realised that I wanted to lose weight, even though I wasn’t fat’.
In China, she says, women respect their bodies.
‘ In Chinese medicine, the menstrual period is called ‘Heavenly Water’. In the West it is called the curse!’ she points out.
She has noticed that it is normal, in the West for women to pretend they don’t have periods, to carry on working just as hard and to take painkillers if they have PMT or cramps.
‘But in China, I was always given a three day leave when my heavenly water started to flow!’
The major difference between Western medicine and Chinese medicine is the attitude to emotions. Western medicine treats the body a though it were a machine, she says, whereas Chinese medicine acknowledges that it is our relationship with our emotions which is most critical to health.
‘In Chinese medicine, emotions are a manifestation of our Qi, our vital life force,’ she says.
When the movement of Qi is impaired, illness or disease can occur.
‘Looking after our feminine health requires that we maintain a close relationship with our natural physiology,’ she says. ‘We must be aware of the activities we engage in daily, the emotions we express, the attitudes we maintain and the foods we ingest, in order to detect subtle imbalances, which can lead to much more serious things, if ignored.’
Childbirth, in the West was another thing that seemed to be treated very differently.
‘Women are encouraged and applauded for leaving their beds and returning to their regular lives as quickly as possible,’ she says. ‘In China, the forty days following childbirth are given to the mother to rest, recover and regain her health.’
She says that although we in the West might send lovely flowers to a new mother, we don’t generally give the kind of support that is needed.
‘ When I returned home after the birth of my son Zhao Zhao, my mother came to cook and support me every day from seven in the morning until two in the afternoon, when my mother in law took over. I felt totally nurtured and loved.’
Where she came from, people were very poor, and very much limited in their choices, she says. But they knew how to look after themselves and each other in a way that we simply do not. Xiaolan set about re-educating her patients to prioritise their health and to take care of themselves.
‘In China we only pay the doctor when we don’t get sick!’ she laughs.
She got her patients to express their feelings, rather than repressing them, to eat suitable foods, and to practice Qi Gong. Xiaolan had success with treating a whole range of problems including PMS, infertility, and even breast cancer. But she feels that much of what she knows about the prevention of illness, women can learn from her book.
‘With this book, I really want to empower women,’ she says.
The book is beautifully written, and fascinating. It is full of useful remedies, such as the egg soup recipe for replenishing Qi during periods and the ginger compress for cramps. But most of all it offers a new and wise perspective on the aspects of the feminine condition that we have come to regard as negative. The period after menopause is known in China as ‘Second Spring.’ Instead of being a time to start exercising frantically and investing in Botox, it is regarded as ‘a time to redefine ourselves , to accept who we are and to heal on a deep level, as we bring the Three Treasures, body, emotions and spirit into harmony.’ A far more beautiful and encouraging way for women to view getting old and wrinkly!
‘Reflections of the Moon on Water’ is published by Virago