Health care and pharmaceuticals

Zhang Wuben and the traditional Chinese medicine racket

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Zhang Wuben on BTV

This is the first in a pair of articles looking at medical rackets in China. Part two is about the sky high prices of private (Western) health care in Chinese cities.

Many people know Zhang Wuben (张悟本) as "Beijing's most expensive traditional Chinese medicine doctor". His lectures on "diet therapy" have been broadcast by several TV stations and sold on DVDs at 200 yuan apiece. His book, a verbatim transcript of the lectures, entitled Eat Away the Diseases You Get from Eating has topped the bestseller lists for weeks on end.

At his "clinic" at Wuben Hall, a faux-classical Chinese building with curved roof outside Beijing's International Olympic Center Stadium, a personal meeting with him was priced at between 300 and 1,800 yuan, and they were booked out until the year 2012, at least until Zhang ran into the troubles detailed below.

The concept of taking care of your heath runs deep in the Chinese psyche; evidence is everywhere of a national obsession with health and anxiety over losing it. Massage salons, even those offering sexual services, call their offerings "health massages" and sex toys are called "health preservation tools" (保健用品). In parks in Chinese cities, you see senior citizens diligently practicing their self-styled exercise forms: running backwards, slinging their arms like crazy, these exercises are all about staying healthy. Products ranging from electric fans to inner soles for shoes pitch themselves as health improvement tools.

There is little quality control.

A few years ago Midea (美的), a reputable domestic home appliance maker, released a "health" (保健) rice cooker featuring a "purple sand inner pot". Benefit to health? Multiple minerals that infuse into the rice, including iron which is vital to blood cell generation.

The rice cooker was so popular that other manufacturers began churning out similar products. Then the state media picked up on it and investigated. Turned out that contrary to popular faith, the precious purple sand was in fact just dyed ordinary clay; the dye, consisting of manganese and nickel oxides, may even be poisonous (see link at bottom of post).

It is in such an environment that health self-help gurus emerge, making their names by preaching secrets of health and longevity. Some successful gurus draw large followings and make handsome profits. Zhang Wuben is just one of them.

But when his name was entangled with this year's hyper-inflation of mung bean prices, his good luck seemed to come to an end.

Mung beans (绿豆) are a common ingredient in Chinese food. Many people put them in their rice porridge for a richer flavor, and mung bean soup is a popular summer concoction. When the price of mung beans tripled earlier this year, people complained loudly and the government was compelled to come up with an explanation. In a media conference, Ma Shuping, an official of the Ministry of Agriculture, attributed the price surge to Zhang's book. "Maybe you have heard that recently, there is a book called Eat Away the Diseases You Get from Eating, the cure of various disease is drinking mung bean soup. One prescription requires the patient to use up to 2.5 kilograms of mung beans a day. "

Aside from the generic "eating healthy" tips, one of the central claim in Zhang's theory is that mung beans are a panacea that works wonders if applied properly. According to Chinese traditional medicine dictionaries, mung beans are described as having the medical value of "dispelling heat and cleansing toxins", but Zhang pushed the claims to new heights: he claimed that eating half a kilo of mung beans every day can cure diabetes, short-sightedness, while 2.5 kilograms a day will greatly improve the chances of surviving various cancers. In one of his lectures, Zhang said that while most people eat mung beans regularly, they usually overcook and underdose.

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Zhang Wuben's book

As mung bean prices skyrocketed, rumors had it that Zhang Wuben was in fact the front man of a speculation scheme. Behind the veneer of a health guru, his real motive was to profiteer from hoarding large amount of mung beans. Zhang's supporters, on the other hand, defended him, arguing that Zhang's easy but effective prescription touches the interest of big corporations: pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and food supplement brands. "When you derive your profit from people's misery, you just don't want them to be healthy."

In response, Zhang quipped: "the price of the real estate in Beijing is also many times higher than it used to be, did I tell people to eat houses too?" The implication: Blame the inflation or whatever, but I refuse to be the scapegoat.

Other doubts are not as easy to joke off. To savvy eyes, Zhang's resumé is full of gaping holes: he claimed his family to be "aristocrats" of Chinese medicine (中医世家) and that he started to study Chinese medicine with his father from the age of six, — a ploy has been so overused that it has lost all its appeal. Chinese medicine has always had a reputation for secretiveness. Traditionally, practitioners would hold on to esoteric knowledge tightly and there are even some traditional codes stipulating that family prescriptions can only be passed on to male heirs. As a result, legendary Chinese medicine doctors are always depicted like wizards surrounded with shrouds of myth and mystery.

As if this Chinese medicine family background is not convincing enough, the bio page of Zhang's website claims that he graduated in 1981 from China's then most prestigious medical school, Beijing Medical University (北京医学院), the predecessor of Peking University Medical School.

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Wuben Hall before demolition

Then Zhang's critics discovered that both he and his father were workers in Beijing Weaving Factory and his experience with Beijing Medical University was limited to a short-term night course. His purported possession of an "advanced level nutritionist" license was denounced by the Ministry of Health. On one occasion, Zhang's father claimed that he had no idea where his son learned his trade.

Ever since the controversy started, the once-friendly media which helped spread his reputation, probably in exchange for a slice of his proceeds, took on a new role as his interrogator.

Dong Lu, a media figure wrote an blog post about his impression of Zhang Wuben after they met during the filming of a TV program. The title: "Zhang Wuben, why are you so nervous? " Excerpt:

... The program started. The host's gave his opening presentation, introduced the guests, showed some video clips. Everything was perfectly normal. The first question directed to Zhang Wuben was whether his family had been Chinese medicine practitioners for generations and if his father had treated a central government leader.

Zhang Wuben replied that his father (a worker by profession ) used to practice acupuncture and massage. Zhang said: "Aren't acupuncture and massage Chinese medicine techniques? He treated patients with the Chinese medicine techniques, who can say that he was not a Chinese medicine doctor?"

Dong Lu: Mr. Zhang, by calling someone's family is a zhongyi shijia, we usually mean that the family have been in this profession for more than three generations.

Zhang Wuben: I have never met my grandfather. I heard that he knew Chinese medicine and treated patients using Chinese medicine too...

Dong: Mr. Zhang, if a doctor once treated a central government leader, people would think that he is a reputed and capable doctor. I would like to know how influential your father really was as a doctor.

Zhang: You know I have a big appetite... Back then, food ration tickets were a rarity. But my father always had plenty. And there are always many bottles of erguotou liquor under our beds.

Dong: You mean that your father was such a successful doctor that the patients who were cured gave him ration tickets and liquor to thank him?

Zhang: Exactly, my father owned a Chinese medicine clinic. One of his patients knew a central government leader... One day, a car was sent to the clinic to pick him up ... When he came home, he told us that he went to visit a patient who was a central leader... For certain reasons, I cannot reveal the leader's name.

Dong: When did this happen?

Zhang: It was too long ago and I can't remember. It was about 1987... maybe 1988 ... Anyway, you should understand the political tension at that time, right?

Trying his best to fend off Dong's questions, Zhang had to admit that there was a discrepancy between the statements on his website and reality. But he insisted that he should not take the blame. "I don't use the Internet, I don't even know how to. It might be just some clerical error."

Dong noticed that Zhang lost his usual eloquence during the program and appeared to be very nervous. Off camera, he was scolded by his "agent": "Your performance was terrible! Where the hell was your confidence?"

So much for the master of Chinese medicine.

An article in the newspaper Beijing News gave a different account of Zhang Wuben:

It took 13 years for this laid-off weaving worker to become a Chinese medicine master. During the 13 years, Zhang never ceased his struggle. A fast-talking guy, Zhang has done all kinds of trading, and attended correspondence courses. Most importantly, he had the luck to meet people who would help him.

After Zhang met a man who was in the health tonic market, his life has totally changed. In the last year of his high school education, Zhang failed his college entrance exam. In 1981, he became a worker in a weaving factory. He worked as a weaver until he was laid off in 1997. Then he tried a salesman's job by hawking all sorts of things, Amyway products and calcium pills.

In the years to follow, Zhang Wuben emerged into the public view, becoming a "magic doctor". According to Zhang himself, he could treat hundreds of chronic diseases. He told people that cancer was not scary at all; its fatality was exaggerated by doctors.

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Zhang Wuben lecturing

The Chinese Medicine Technology Cooperation Center, isa company affiliated to the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences (中国中医科学院). Though the CACMS is a state-owned research institute, like other branches of the government, it engaged itself in business activities by setting up a string of companies, including the Cooperation Center.

In 2007, the Cooperation Center launched a campaign to promote Chinese medicine. The core of the campaign was to invite people to attend free lectures held in residential communities. An employee of the company, who happened to be a friend of Zhang Wuben, introduced Zhang to Yan Liang, general manager of the center. According to Yan, the company didn't have much of a budget, so it was impossible to hire celebrity academics or reputed Chinese medicine doctors.

Yan found Zhang communicated well and was very good at using colloquial language to explain big theories. According to an insider working at the Academy, the real purpose of the campaign was to attract media attention to boost the company's publicity.

In 2009, He Xiongfei, a publisher, was asked by a friend of his whether he would be interested in packaging a "Chinese medicine master". He Xiongfei is well-established in the publication business. He is believed to be the man behind the the popularity of several cultural stars such as poet Wang Guozhen (汪国真), Peking University lecturer Kong Qingdong (孔庆东), and Mo Luo (摩罗), a nationalist writer, whose books include China, Stand up (中国站起来).

For some reason, He Xiongfei left the the publishing industry at the turn of the century. The friend, who has invested in film and TV, asking him whether he could publish a book for Zhang. He also showed him Zhang's lecture disk.

"I was gripped by his views, which were totally innovative, and completely different from the other experts in the field that I knew. He was very good with words too," said He Xiongfei.
"This is a time when every one cares about his health like never before, and Zhang's views are so different. I realized that he would be enormously famous if I packaged him right. His book would sell... At that time, I was thinking, this book will be a success, I would regret it for the rest of my life if I didn't do this."

It seems that while everyone vouches for Zhang's verbal ability, there is a conspicuous lack of interest in the real effectiveness of his "different theories".

And it is clear that Zhang has never been a lone operator. He has always had a business-savvy team working with him from behind the scenes. From the very beginning, they were aware of the legal risks. In this sense, he is not just a regular con artist.

He calls himself a nutritionist, not a doctor, and he never claims supernatural powers. He says he is "an ordinary man who takes an interest in diet treatments and works to prevent disease from happening". To avoid possible controversies, he insists that he doesn't treat patients, he "consults" and give people "advice", which mostly consists of vegetarian diets.

Though he uses Chinese medicine as his banner, Zhang's methods in many ways correspond to the modern notions of healthy eating: more vegetables and fiber, less meat and animal fat; he never went so far as telling people to take arsenic or glauber's salt, as another fallen master Hu Wanlin (胡万林) did. (Hu was sentenced to 15 years in prison for "illegally practicing medicine" in 1998. )

Zhang's discretion has probably saved him from the fate of other health gurus who have ended their careers in disgrace. His Wuben Hall was torn down because it was an illegal construction, but Zhang himself was untouched. Even the prosecutors had to admit that there was no evidence that Zhang had broken any law.

It seems after all the negative publicity, Zhang continues to portray himself as a hero from the people and for the people: recently he announced that since mung beans are now so expensive, he will commit himself to finding a cheaper replacement.

It would be impossible to explain the popularity of Zhang and his likes without mentioning the fact that in our time, modern medical science has become intimidatingly complicated to the majority of ordinary people. When a grown-up goes to a hospital, his situation is not unlike a baby. He faces a whole system that he know little about; he is at the mercy of professionals. As mighty as modern medicine is, it has its limits: it cannot explain the mechanism of some of the most common conditions such as high blood pressure. And here in China where doctors have to deal with hundreds of patients a day, they have neither the time nor obligation to bring themselves down to a patient's level to explain everything.

What modern medicine and doctors can't do, Zhang Wuben can. At least in a way. Not only are his fable-like theories easy to understand, they also confirm many people's daily experiences: cooking egg plant takes more oil than other vegetables, so for the same reason, eating raw eggplants will reduce your body fat.

The methods derived from his simplistic theories are actionable: Zhang asserts that different body organs have their own color preferences: lungs like white food, the liver likes green food, kidneys like black food, the heart likes red food and the spleen likes yellow food. So mung beans, green in color, ate good for the liver, while yellow soy beans are good for the spleen. "Why has the rest of the world taken to our toufu? Because they also realized that toufu is good for the spleen," he says. Zhang shrewdly plays on people's mistrust of food quality: Chemical thickener is used in yogurt production, so it will have the same effect on your blood and clot your blood vessels.

Finally, there is the power of positive thinking: Zhang keeps telling people: you are your best doctor, your kitchen is your best hospital, food is the best medicine. It is not hard to imagine that people who have heard this enough times may generate a sense of empowerment: Yes, we can! We can be healthy, and do it without spending a fortune on medical bills.

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There are currently 3 Comments for Zhang Wuben and the traditional Chinese medicine racket.

Comments on Zhang Wuben and the traditional Chinese medicine racket

great article, interesting to see the present day of culture of Traditional chinese medicine

It would be interesting to see if Zhang Wuben's book is a rough "Cut 'n Paste" Translation Copy of Kevin Trudeau's "Natural Cures They Don't Want You to Know About." If so, then expect to see more copycat scam artists to be crawling out of the P.R. Chinese woodwork in the next few years - copying everything from Matthew Lesko's "Free Money to Change Your Life" to Rich DeVos' Amway.

^ Doubt it. In terms of health and well-being, it's the New Agers who copy Chinese and other eastern ideas, not the other way around.

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