Hunt For TCM Universities in China (Summer 2005)

I focused on the schools that had a “university (大学)” status. Most TCM Schools of higher learning were still institutions then (学院). I took a one month long trip to see the five big TCM universities, beginning in Beijing.

Beijing

I had already been to Beijing before, so the focus was not on sightseeing. Having already booked a hotel in the university campus itself, the cab went straight from the airport to the university campus, which was some ways from the city center center. No problem.

I unpacked my bags and went straight to the university canteen. The food was great and although I didn’t have a card to pay for the food, someone offered to use his card to help me pay – I of course returned him what I owed in cash.

I then went to see the local student dorms, which was this new building with many floors all the way up. People were playing basketball in the sport arena, and the place did seem to have a campus life. One person I found and ended up talking to alot was this Chinese PhD student who was in one of the empty classrooms I had wandered into. He came from Xinjiang, but was a Han Chinese. I asked why he was reading his PhD and not doing clinical work instead.

His reply: I don’t have connections in the hospitals. If I had connections, like some people here do, I’d be in my fifth year of work already. Instead, I’m studying for a PhD so that my qualifications would give me a chance in the hospital. I have a love for Chinese Medicine, and have already successfully treated some people back in my village in Xinjiang.

The point when doing research about schools is that you have to talk to people.

I went to the international student dorms and met another group of people from another spectrum of life. These people came mainly from Korea and there were a minority of people from Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Japan… Yes, this Japanese student told me he was a 3rd year student doing a five-year course in Acupuncture & Tuina, and he still didn’t know how to needle. He told me he had to pay quite a bit (on an hourly basis) to “follow” an acupuncture doctor there. His story made me rethink wanting to study in Beijing.

The Beijing campus then was very quaint. Apart from the new student dorms for the locals and international students, everything else was old and – to me at least – quaint. The new dorms for the international students were rented out at a high cost I don’t remember now. I still remember some students telling me they rented apartments outside of the university campus, but not too far away.

I remember too that the Indonesians were getting ready for a private class with a “Chinese Herbs” teacher. They paid to have small private group classes aside from the classes they officially took. Which made me wonder. And I still remember talking briefly with this guy from Spain, who had finished his Bachelors some time back and was doing further studies in the classics. This one guy spoke fluent Chinese, and he said one thing that I still remember now: We used to have so few foreign students and a low student-teacher ratio. During our Shanghanlun class, the teacher had time to explain so many things, something that isn’t possible now.

I also remember talking with the Taiwanese students. It is interesting, but compared with the other three schools, the Taiwan students here were much older, most of them 30 and above. They seemed really serious about what they were doing. And the Koreans, I remember, were a bunch of students goofing around.

These are just my one-off impressions. But I decided against Beijing because of what the Japanese guy said. Another reason was the whether, which I am not used to – dry and with sand storms that I know I can’t bear.

I also went in search a Qigong master – Dr. Chen – who lectures in Italy and parts of Europe. That search was in vain.

Shanghai

Shanghai is an overnight ride from Beijing. The Shanghai campus had recently moved from the city center to the Eastern end of the city. Just take the East-West line all the way to the end. Like Beijing, Shanghai has a very professional front-of-house. The people I had called or emailed replied almost immediately. Like Beijing, they refused to let me sit in on the classes, so in both occasions I had to ask some student to bring me around. The Shanghai program is a trimester program focused on exams, exams and exams. Professionally run, it is a grind. I knew I was not suited to the program because it didn’t give me the space I needed to really understand herbs instead of madly rushing from exam to exam. The failure rate was high, and I knew I wasn’t here to get a Bachelors nor was I here to get good exam grades – I already have these two – I was here to learn.

That said, the Shanghai program is very well run, not like the Nanjing program. The staff is professional, and you know that after five years in Shanghai – if you’re serious enough – you will be well stocked with a good amount of knowledge. I most like the staff and the classrooms. You can see this university is rich!

Nanjing

Nanjing University of TCM’s city campus looks like a secondary school. It’s really poorly maintained. The university hotel I lived in was horrible. It was as if the bedsheets hadn’t been changed for 3 months. The carpeting was dirty, and I was paying the same rate as I would pay in Guangzhou (read on, this was the best hotel ever!).

The administration was not too helpful, except for one lady, who despite being busy, gave me ample information about the classes and the different programs offered. I remember wandering the dreary hallways and wondering how it must be like to spend five years of your life in one of the small classrooms in this seven-storey building.

Some students from Macau and Vietnam told me they would band together to get an Ah-yee to cook for them. The canteen was seven grades below the one in Beijing. And the sports arena was nothing to be desired.

I remembered though wandering into a study circle of some Master students from Taiwan. They seemed very interested in the classics and recommended several authors. They also mentioned how the old Chinese Doctors were a shrinking minority, but there was much opportunity to follow the teachers here.

I chose this school because the feedback from eager students was that if I searched, I would find here. It turns out that many of the doctors here are not money-hungry or spoiled by the huge foreign influx in the big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing. It turned out to be a good choice.

On the flip side, do remember that this University has a feudal aura to it, nothing close to the professional setting we find in Shanghai. If you come here and just eat what fed to you, you’ll learn that many spoonsful and nothing much more. And studying here can be a rather dreary affair.

Chengdu

This city is known for being strong in herbs. Not everything, but alot of the herbs are being grown in Sichuan, and so you may find a good teacher here if your interest is in herb identification, preparation etc.

I lived in the University hotel, which was decent, to say the least. I tried out some massage in an adjoining space by the hotel – it was decent. Then I went out to explore. I didn’t see any Sichuan beauties (四川美女) as I paced the streets from the university all the way to some forlorn area in the eastern direction. It was nightfall and the only place to eat was this “skewer-in-the-hotpot” place. I can only give my personal take on this, because I knew some people really like the Sichuan chillies, but I could only taste the chilli no matter how many skewered meat and mushrooms and vegetables I cooked in the hotpot and ate. And I ended up drinking much more beer than I intended to, because water alone was not going to take away that chilli taste.

I like the people of Chengdu. There is an air of ease about the way they do things. I remember meeting the lone administrative lady in some small room that I found the night before only to be told to come the next day. I can’t remember her name, but she was the most delightful and helpful person I met during scouting adventure of mine. She personally walked me around the entire school, showing me classrooms, activity halls etc. The Chengdu University of TCM that I saw then was a run down place slightly bigger than the Nanjing campus. I remember it being abuzz with activity, a scene rather different than that of Nanjing. That’s one thing to note.

Then she passed me on to another person to bring me to see the affiliated hospital. I saw the powdered herb sachets produced and used in the hospital – an old school relic from maybe 30 years back, but abuzz with activity. I managed to walk into several acupuncture clinics and ended up making friends with this old TCM guy who was bound for the UK soon.

He was relearning acupuncture, as it were, having been more of a herbs guys the past 20 years as a TCM doctor in China. After the short stint in Chengdu, he was headed to the UK where he had a place. We had lunch and I remember very clearly him telling me that at my age, my focus should not be on studying the way other students study. While I should abide by the official syllabus, I shouldn’t follow it blindly. He recommended several broad-view books that focused on traditional philosophy and its link to application of TCM, which I read and spent the first year taking in.

I sneaked into a Shanghanlun lecture and was warmly welcomed by the teacher. He was enthusiatic about what he was teaching and didn’t use Powerpoint – the norm in many places. There is something different about old-school learning from a chalk board, especially if the teacher knows how to use the it. During the break, he would walk out of the classroom and squat down (the way many Chinese people like to squat) and light his cigarette. A dozen of students hovered around him as he spoke of how a pharmaceutical company wanted to buy a formulaic prescription from him, and how he rejected the monetary offer because he believed that no one formula worked for everyone.

I liked Chengdu a lot. In terms of cost, it was the cheapest. I could get a comfy place to stay in for 900yuan a month. That would be 1500yuan in Nanjing, and much more in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou.

I flew from Chengdu to Guangzhou using a ticketing service offered by ctrip.com. After I made a booking online, they gave me a call on my mobile to confirm the booking, and then sent the tickets to the hotel I was living in.

Guangzhou

The one word I’d use for Guangzhou is “messy.” Around the school proper, it’s messy enough. Wait till you go further south, and see streets and streets selling first clothes, then shoes, then whatever else you can think of. I was told a long back how much you have to pay to get things done in Guangzhou, how Taiwanese students come and seduce the teachers with gifts as opulent as jade buddhas and cars. I’d just relegate such talk as half truth had I not met up with a friend of a friend who lived and worked in the University.

He also taught in Guangzhou University of TCM, and would be considered a old revered Doctor. He advised against coming to Guangzhou to do a Bachelors, but did recommend coming to gain clinical experience. Guangzhou’s hospitals are said to be packed with patients of all kinds of illnesses, and there are several well-known Warm Diseases experts here to learn from.

Guangzhou University of TCM has a university hotel that pummels the others hands down. At the price I was paying, I never expected the kind of room I was given. The canteen – yes, public canteen – at the ground floor of the hotel offered more than decent Chinese food. I was very happy with my stay there.

Conclusion

It really depends on what you’re looking for. Places like Beijing and Shanghai University of TCM, being in bigger cities, provide a more professional arrangement. They are used to having foreigners and know what foreigners are looking for. Overall, I think that these schools offer a good program to provide a firm basis for learning TCM.

Nanjing is further inland, and is more primitive and pristine in several aspects. Not to work up a generalization, but from what I know, the doctors tend to be less commercial – it’s relative – and this may mean a doctor accepting you not based on the dollar amount you can offer him. I have follow many doctors here outside of class hours, and not for a single cent. I say thank you not in fee amounts, but with a token gift that is not costly but show sincerity. I don’t know if you can learn like that in the cities lining the coast, least so in Guangzhou.

Despite not knowing too much about Chengdu, I get the impression that it is a great place to learn the traditional aspect of Chinese Medicine. I didn’t choose it for two reasons.

I wanted to understand what the patients are saying. It’s much more difficult to get the Sichuan dialect – and the Shanghai dialect for that matter – than to understand the Nanjing dialect (which sounds very much like Mandarin).
The weather is cloudy all year round. And it’s cold and wet in the winter. Actually Nanjing is pretty much the same, since it is also situation along the Yangtze River. But I did remember very clearly how the blanket of clouds over Chengdu seemed make it a greenhouse of sorts.

My ultimate impression of Nanjing is this: it is not so well administrated, which means that if you’re able to search and find, you will find doctors who will allow you to learn from them if you can prove that you know what you are supposed to know and are keen to learn. I needed such an environment. More and more doctors here have already started charging “tuition fees,” but there are many other doctors who do think of passing on the baton in such a manner. I am an overseas Chinese learning the art, and they appreciate my willingness to come all the way here to learn from them. As I have seen with some other friends from outside of Asia, they will be even more impressed if you speak to them in Chinese, showing that you’re not just learning the art, but also the language proper.

One last note on the evolving art. You will learn Western medicine in all the schools I mentioned above. I personally believe that it is your duty to learn and understand the modern basis for medicine, even if you’re learning a traditional art. In acupuncture, anatomy is crucial. With many diseases of internal medicine, physiology and pathology and diagnostics are important fundaments to build upon. You will need to understand the significance of lab tests and disease pathogenesis if you’re working at the clinical level here.

Some students here decide from day one they will just pass the exam for subjects related to Western medicine, while focusing on the TCM itself. It really is a huge load to learn both modalities, especially if it’s in Chinese, but the rewards are significant once you get a good sense of both.

Hope this write-up helps you decide on which TCM university to pick in Chinese. This article is based on one person’s experience and is insignificant, biased and not peer-reviewed. So, better if you come look at the different schools on your own!