I'd been hearing stories about Dr. Liang for some time already.
Her healing successes with the aid of herbs sound amazing enough, yet she is also said to have helped countless desparate couples, some of them quite advanced in years, to have children.
In spite of its growing popularity in the West, Chinese medicine is a form of philosophy which is virtually impenetrable for those who have had little contact with China. Nevertheless, I find myself wondering just how much we understand about from other cultures. There are so many different levels, so many stories. So much which is self-evident and natural in their experience, yet so completely alien to the western world. For practitioners, it is not merely a question of learning what they do, every facet of their lives embodies their teachings.
The lesson of the five elements, yin and yang, balancing the qi, feng shui, a vast field in itself which is based on the science of the I Ching, all of these flow into the philosophy.
In China, everyone absorbs these lessons as a matter of course. This body of knowledge is available to one and all, handed down from one generation to the next and drawn upon each and every day.
But here, as elsewhere in the world, ancient knowledge is increasingly at risk of disappearing. The younger generation have their minds on other things.
Early one morning, we are in a suburb of Guangzhou. Dr. Liang's day usually begins at 5 o'clock.
This is a typical Chinese village, long lines of breakfast stalls offer Cantonese delicacies as the rain pours down.
Every year, heavy rains and floods hit Southern China and this place is no exception.
The wellington-booted Dr Liang leaves her house to buy vegetables at the wholesale market. We wade through small lakes in the streets, take off our shoes and as the water rises up to our knees. It may be fun for us this morning, but in other parts of China the deluge, exacerbated by bad planning, develops into a terrible natural disaster and lives are lost.
Dr. Liang, on first impression a decidedly austere figure with a loud and commanding voice, shouts out her orders above the noise of the market.
On the way there, she identified the medicinal plants we saw growing beside the road and explained their uses.
I warm to her, seeing and sensing how she relates to people. From the heart.
Chicken, leeks, a winter melon, a vegetable exclusive to China and only found in Canton at this time of year. She picks up a piece of pork rind to inspect it (it passes the test). That's everything for now she prefers to buy what she needs fresh, one day at a time.
Food is medicine in China. I have lost count of the times I've heard people talk about boiled, fried, steamed food. Ginger is good for this, bone marrow for that, bitter melon helps with …
Avoid carrots at all costs if you don't want to get ill. This is just one of Dr. Liang's instructions in the days to come. The same goes for celery!
“Follow your heart, look for healing with heart” was one piece of advice that stayed with me. How do you find the right people in China, those who help and heal others? There are so many of them, often using different methods, driven by different motives. I had one worryingly disconcerting encounter with a shaman in Inner Mongolia which compelled me to adopt a fresh approach to my project. Instead of gravitating towards the most photogenic or exotic healers and subjects, I would follow those I meet by chance or fate - Yuanfen, as they call it in China.
Dr. Liang is one such person. Her stories make a deep impression on me.
She began working as her blind father’s assistant at the tender age of seven. He too was a doctor. Their living room served as a waiting room for an endless stream of patients. It was also the treatment room and dining room. The only thing that has changed is that she now sits in his chair, at his table.
Her father was an orphan and beggar as a child. He met a Buddhist monk from Sichuan and followed him there, where he lived in the temple for a number of years until the monk sent him to a school in Guangzhou. They were reunited many years later in Guangzhou. Once again, the father followed the monk to the temple in the neighbouring province and lived there for several years more. When war broke out with Japan, the monk sent her father back to Guangzhou to keep him safe.
In a cruel twist of fate, Guangzhou offered no refuge. On the contrary, a few years later he was beaten so badly by a Japanese soldier that he lost his eyesight.
Blind, he became a beggar for the second time, yet ultimately succeeded in establishing himself as a doctor.
By the time Dr. Liang was born, her father had already lost his sight. He had passed the age of forty, unusually old to become a father in China. Dr. Liang had her own daughter quite late, one of the many similarities in her and her father’s stories. She talks less about her mother.
For thirty years she assisted her father, listening intently, learning carefully, writing down his herbal remedies and recipes. Back then, her father chose to work with a specialist apothecary where he could be sure of the quality of their wares. The apothecary, not far away, is now run by the next generation of the family and is still frequented by Dr. Liang's patients who come here for their specially prepared herbal mixtures.
The economically independent doctor likes to keep the chemists on their toes and has a habit of calling in unannounced to check if they are still using the best possible herbs, ideally gathered from high up in the mountains. Dr. Liang avoids animal products in her medicinal prescriptions, with the exception of snakeskin or the shells of a certain type of beetle.
Since the apothecary is closed today, her practice also remains closed, a rare occurrence.
She posts the news on her WeChat friends wall and looks forward to a day off.
Now she and her husband can spend the morning enjoying a leisurely breakfast in a dim sum restaurant. But her mobile phone is never silent, ringing with calls and WeChat messages. We head back to find a crowd of patients hovering outside her locked door.
Dr. Liang laughs as she asks them if they all missed the message she posted? …
Yet she turns nobody away, everyone will get a chance to see her. They will just have to come back over the next few days for the herbs from the apothecary.
An hour later, when the doctor is finally on her way to the car, a woman rushes up to her. She has a long trip behind her, having come all the way from another province. The doctor will see her too, her third visitor today asking for help with conceiving.
At long last, she is able to set off to her favourite place, Mount Xiqiao, where the largest Guanyin statue in Asia looks down from the summit.
We make our ascent through the mist as drizzle falls.
First we enter the Buddhist temple where we meet a monk and Dr. Liang hands over our gifts, she appears to be a popular visitor here. After lunch we visit Guanyin. Dr. Liang is a practising Buddhist. As I thought, she strongly believes that Buddhism helps her in her existence and vocation as a doctor. Sie heals from the heart, with empathy, to the best of her knowledge, the best of her conscience. She believes unfailingly in the laws of karma, bad deeds weigh even heavier in a healing profession, she thinks.
This is how she lives, her brusque demeanour is purely superficial.
Breakfast is served the following morning in her multi-purpose room. Noodle soup.
The first patients of a steady stream arrive at 7:30 am. Dr. Liang is listening to one of the early arrivals, sitting across the table. Her husband is still here and I survey the room while the doctor treats her visitors.
One wall is decorated with Buddhist and Daoist statues, many of them gifts from patients. The left side is devoted to her late parents. Fresh fruit and cigarettes are always laid out, ready and waiting for her father.
A thin glass vessel, upside down, catches my eye, standing in front of the figure of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King.
The legend of Sun Wukong is famous throughout Asia and is told in the Chinese novel Journey to the West.
The Monkey King can be traced back to an ancient story. In the 7th century, a monk by the name of Xuanzang set out from China to India to procure Buddha's holy scriptures for his Emperor, a journey which spanned sixteen years. On his return, the monk wrote an extensive report on his expedition, the Journey to the West, one of the most important historical documents of former times to this day. As centuries have passed, Xuanzang's pilgrimage has become intertwined with myths and folk tales – one of which is the story of the Monkey King.
Thanks to the teachings of various Daoist masters, Sun Wukong not only learns how to fight but also how to jump to an incredible height and how to shapeshift into 72 different forms. The Monkey King possesses a staff which can change its size and a cloud on which he can fly. As King, he finds a blessed corner of Earth for his people and contentedly stages a daily banquet. But he desires more – immortality and the throne of the Jade Emperor.
He uses his skills to mischievous ends until Buddha manages to outwit him and imprisons him under a mountain for 500 years. Finally, rehabilitated, he is permitted to accompany the monk Xuanzang on his pilgrimage to India.
The glass vessel in the doctor's room announces the coming of Sun Wukong, or so she tells us. A light “ringing” like a bell can then be heard. Many of her patients have heard it ring and we hope we are just as lucky as them.
We wait in suspense for the rest of the day.
As time passes, we listen to the patients' stories. There is no privacy here, everything is rolled into one. It is not unusual for the other patients to gather round the table to listen to someone else’s tale, adding their own comments, generally offering encouragement. Dr. Liang's older patients, some of whom used to visit her father, reassure the others that the good doctor’s herbs, recommendations and instructions will help them feel better.
Most leave the practice happier than when they arrived.
I recently read a book about the placebo effect. Our brain can actually influence how we get sick or get well again. Without treatment.
Dr. Liang instills in all of her patients a sense that they will be healed … and it helps. Her results are astounding. She herself is more pragmatic in her thinking. She is able to help, so she does, it is her mission in this life.
She receives patients seven days a week but, with her own wellbeing in mind to some degree at least, only from morning to lunchtime. Long queues form outside her door at weekends. Her own qi is strong, she attests. Of that, there is no doubt.