The story of Chinese medicine in Taiwan over the last century has been one of survival: the profession was nearly eradicated through a Japanese modernization campaign during the occupation, then suffered from a serious legitimacy crisis surrounding the use of steroids in Chinese patent medicines mid-century, and in the modern era, this age-old medicine now struggles to remain relevant in a world increasingly dominated by western and scientific worldviews. Against this rather dire backdrop, Chinese Medicine: A Guided Tour with Illustrations & Comics is a necessary and welcome addition to the Taiwan book market – an accessible, but thorough introduction to Chinese medicine meant to engage and secure the attention of scroll-happy zoomers and millennials with a blend of humor, relatable real-life scenarios, illustrations and a down-to-earth writing style.
With its cryptic, symbolic language and ancient conceptual models, Chinese medicine must seem like an archaic relic of the pre-modern Chinese world to a younger generation of Taiwanese whose only exposure to such concepts comes from passing references in Jin Yong novels and fantasy mobile games. Chinese Medicine: A Guided Tour with Illustrations & Comics aims to translate the abstruse conceptual landscape of Chinese medicine into a language that the younger generation can easily identify with and understand through the prism of their own modern worldview. To this end, Faces Publishing has enlisted “Siwutopia”, a group of young Chinese doctors at the China Medical University Affiliated Hospital who has built up an impressive following on Instagram and Facebook by creating Chinese medicine-related content that blends cutesy and humorous graphics with culturally relevant topics such as, “is your constitution suited to drinking coffee?” and “what to do about period pain?” The book maintains the relatable style of Siwutopia’s online content and employs a variety of strategies to ensure a “painless introduction to Chinese medicine”, as the cover advertises.
But why would any introduction to Chinese medicine be “painful”? As it turns out, the ancient healing modality can actually be overwhelmingly complex to the uninitiated – Chinese medicine employs a gamut of pre-modern logic systems such as five-element theory, root and branch theory, five movements and six qi etc., and its understanding of how the body functions, the body’s constituent parts and the pathogenesis of disease all vary significantly from Western medicine. Thus, presenting all this information in a way that doesn’t make cram school-weary youngsters feel like their reading another textbook is no small task, but Chinese Medicine: A Guided Tour with Illustrations & Comics accomplishes this feat quite successfully.
The first thing that stands out is the language – Siwutopia’s prose is highly conversational; they addresses the reader directly and often refers to himself in joking asides. This conversational style helps to draw the reader in and alleviate any sense of alienation that may result from the highly technical and unfamiliar nature of the material. Additionally, by referring to themselves as the “clinic director” and peppering his speech with Taiwanese phrases, Siwutopia evinces an avuncular quality that instills both comfort and trust in the reader.
Siwutopia has also created a cast of characters that imbue a human element to otherwise difficult and unfamiliar theory: Lanky Joe and Miss Curves are a brother-sister duo whose misadventures appear in short comics at the beginning of every chapter and demonstrate how each subject is relevant to the life of an average person. In most of the comics, the two teens are also joined by a pair of ghost-like characters named Lil’ Yin and Lil’ Yang. The two function almost like a Chinese cross-talk duo, with Lil’ Yin playing the straight man who explains difficult Chinese concepts to Lanky Joe and Miss Curves, while Lil’ Yang just tries to cook up trouble and find the punchline. In one of the early chapters on Chinese vs. Western medical theory, Miss Curves complains to Lanky Joe that her Chinese doctor told her she had a wind stroke. Lil’ Yang feigns concern for her “serious condition”, but Lil’ Yin quickly intervenes to assure Miss Curves that this is simply a matter of differing terminology and she has nothing to worry about. These comics offer a nice reprieve after the more theory-laden back halves of each chapter and zoomers will no doubt identify with the brother-sister duo’s humorous misunderstanding of concepts in Chinese medicine.
Explaining Chinese medical concepts to a lay audience is a difficult task, but Siwutopia is skilled at using analogy and familiar examples from everyday life to lend context and clarity to the reader. Particularly admirable is Siwutopia’s explanation of the Chinese medical concepts of qi, blood and fluid by way of a steam-powered train. Qi, Siwutopia explains, can be likened to the steam that powers the engine, while blood and fluid are like the raw materials used to produce the steam. Despite qi being an inscrutable and hard to define concept, the steam engine image will be immediately comprehensible to lay audiences on an intuitive level. Going along with the transportation theme, Siwutopia likens Chinese medicine’s channel system to “highways and byways”, while describing acupoints as “checkpoints along the highway that can signal an issue in that locality”. Just like the steam-engine analogy, this portrayal of the channels and acupoints is instantly comprehensible without sacrificing any accuracy. Siwutopia also makes expert use of common ailments familiar to even the least medically-minded teen to demonstrate certain less obvious Chinese medical concepts. In Chinese medicine, wind is considered an external pathogen that has a swift, protean, and unpredictable nature, but this can be a difficult concept to grasp. Siwutopia uses the common skin disease urticaria to bring the concept of wind to life, noting how Chinese physicians recognize urticaria as a wind-related disease because the skin lesions come and go quickly and without any predictable pattern.
Ultimately, even after deploying all the ingenious strategies described above, the average young reader may inevitably still tire from a ceaseless stream of didactic material, but Siwutopia has yet another ace up their sleeves – sandwiched between theoretical material at the beginning and end of each chapter, are practical guides for putting all this new knowledge to use. For instance, in the chapter on eye strain, Siwutopia recommends massaging two acupoints when the eyes become sore after reading and even shares an herbal tea that can be used to “nourish the eyes”. In the section on acne, an interactive chart teaches the reader how to diagnose their own acne by location: acne on the forehead is a “heart” issue, suggesting an overactive mind, while acne on the left cheek indicates a “liver” disfunction for which the afflicted party should avoid going to bed too late. This interactive content compels the reader to experience the medicine for themselves, further reducing the distance between the westernized Taiwanese zoomer and this ancient healing system.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Chinese Medicine: A Guided Tour with Illustrations & Comics is that despite all the attempts to humanize and simplify the medicine in this volume, Siwutopia manages to sneak in a surprising level of detail and depth in their descriptions of various ideas. I was amazed to find a table containing differential diagnosis for various organ-related coughs, detailed discussion of the role the Chinese medical notion of the “lung” plays in constipation, and a section on the lesser-known, eye-based diagnostic system called “five wheels and eight belts”. If not for the histrionics of Siwutopia’s motley cast of characters, the illustration-heavy presentation style and informal, vernacular feel of the prose, such in-depth material would certainly be too much for the tik-tok attention spans of the average teen, but the headier content is broken up just enough to maintain that “painlessness” while also delivering a substantive representation of the medicine’s theoretical precepts.
Chinese Medicine: A Guided Tour with Illustrations & Comics is the perfect remedy for an ancient medical system struggling to remain relevant, a volume that balances a hyper-awareness and attentiveness to the aesthetic of its audience while never compromising the complexity and, indeed, the dignity of this profound and powerful system of medicine. As Taiwan continues to westernize, Siwutopia’s “painless” didactic model may well serve as an effective and important strategy for transmitting this valuable knowledge to successive generations.