What I learned about healthy living from a Traditional Chinese Medicine Master
Jenny McAllister | 04.18.13
Jenny McAllister is a TV producer living in San Francisco. She travels the world filming stories for National Geographic, PBS and Discovery Channel.
Her latest adventure took her to China where she filmed a PBS special profiling a nationally recognized Chinese Medicine Master to explore where Traditional Chinese Medicine and modern Western medicine collide.
Master Li and Jenny McAllister.
OK, so first here's Master Li. He's a nationally recognized doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine. We were in China to film his life and learn about Chinese Medicine.
What we actually learned was that Master Li isn't incredible because he's a Chinese Medicine Master, he's incredible because of the person he is. Not to be cheesy, but meeting and learning from Master Li made this one of the most amazing shoots I've ever been a part of.
We started in Hefei, China- a dirty non-descript city that also happens to have one of China's leading medical schools and hospitals.
The coolest part of this leg of the shoot? Visiting the "Herb Museum" at the Medical School… Just thousands upon thousands of herbs. And Master Li knew just about every one of them! We asked how many herbs he knew and he shrugged and said probably 2,000 or so -- as if that was no big deal.
We asked our host, Andy (a western doctor just learning Chinese herbs), how many he knew. He said he knew about 50, thinking the Master would laugh at how little he knew. Instead, Master Li chuckled, took his hand and said "Wow! That's a lot! By my age, you'll know twice as many as me!"
That's just how the master is... holding hands and saying something unexpectedly kind.
Then we moved on to Wuhu, China. (Woo Hoo!) We spent some time at an herb shop looking at the traditional remedies and doing rounds at the hospital with the Master.
This was my favorite painting. It's a picture of "Winter Plum Blossoms". I later found out that the Chinese word for this flower is "Mae,” which is the name of my daughter. When I told the master that, he chuckled and said gently, "Are you surprised? There's no such thing as coincidence. There's a reason for everything."
In the Master's office- No computer. No cords. No paperwork. Just a big pad of paper and some calligraphy brushes. He loves technology but thinks that having it around too much will put you out of balance.
But the best part was visiting Master Li's tiny apartment next to the hospital. He has an incredible art collection -- I mean every wall covered.
And then, right when we think we've seen it all, he opens his closet in his bedroom. We all expect clothes inside, but nope... Hundreds more of these exquisite Traditional Chinese paintings.
Behind every great man…
It's actually not Master Li who comes from a lineage of famous doctors -- it's his wife, Zhang Shunhua.
Her father was a famous Chinese doctor. When her brother died young, her father was distraught because he couldn't pass on his skills. But Zhang Shunhua was bright, she studied hard, she went into the mountains to collect herbs and create medicines, and finally her intense effort touched her father and he agreed to pass on the family medical skills to her. A super un-conventional idea in those days.
At the same time, Master Li was studying under her father. Her father liked Master Li so much that he arranged a marriage between his daughter and his bright young apprentice. In America, we look at arranged marriage and say "how miserable". But, 50 years later, you can see how this arranged marriage has blossomed into love. They hold hands, look out for each other, and most importantly they're constantly cracking each other up.
Master Li and his wife, Zhang Shunhua.
It is sometimes whispered that Zhang Shunhua is actually a better doctor than Master Li! When I asked her if she ever felt it was unfair that she had to work so hard to become a doctor, here's what she said:
"The environment was not favorable for women then. Very few...next to none...female doctors existed back then. I worked really hard...because I’m a woman I have to work harder. Master Li was gone all week and only home on the weekends, for 20 years. So I had 5 children - and not only did I have to do all of the family chores, but on top of that, I had my medical practice. I worked during day, I worked at night, some people called me 'iron lady' (superhero) because I'm doing so much. But, no, it's not unfair. It's just the way things were, I didn’t question it. I just worked harder."
As an American, it's hard to understand her acceptance. Until we interviewed Master Li. We asked what his secret to his success was and - without hesitation - he said this:
"My wife is responsible for my success. When I studied in Hefei, the capital city of Anhui – she took care of 5 kids by herself. During day she saw patients to make living for the family, at night she has to do home chores and also make clothes for the kids. When I was studying away from home, she did all this by herself. And I was away for 20 years. So if it weren’t for her taking care of things at home, I couldn't have done that. If it weren't for her, there’s no career for me."
The real hero of this story is this incredible woman - a doctor against all odds, raising a family of 5 children (each of them going on to become PhD's themselves!), and hilariously joking "he wasn't attractive, but hey, it was an arranged marriage, what are you gonna do?"
The ancient village of DingTan.
家 (translation: home)
The second half of the shoot was spent in the Yellow Mountains - in tiny DingTan village, the Medicine Master's hometown. The town has been there, on the banks of the Huangshan River, for well over a thousand years. It felt like a real privilege to get off the beaten path and into the "real" China -- a part of the country no tourists ever go -- and to get to know some of the people (and kids!). We were welcomed with open arms (literally, hugs all around).
We spent time with his family, and he showed us his exercise routine. It's based off the ancient Chinese movements of Qigong -- similar to Tai Chi.
Everywhere we went, people would see the cameras and gather. But that's nothing new. Every shoot is like that. But when they found out it was Li Jiren - the famous Medicine Master - they'd wait around. Master Li was always gracious and would give quick free consultations to anyone who needed it. But really, overall, we just had a lot of fun.
Enjoying a meal together at Master Li's home.
After spending a week being warmly welcomed into his home - drinking Chinese Bai-Jiu wine, making dumplings, looking at art, going for walks together - it was time to leave.
On our last day with Master Li, we walked around a thousand year old city near his home. When the day was over, we all hugged him goodbye and thanked him. The sun was setting over an enormous ancient city gate, and as Master Li shuffled away, we all fell silent. Each of us touched, some to tears, by this 83-year-old man who is a living example of warmth, generosity, fun and kindness.
I feel so lucky to have had this time with him, and will carry his teachings with me always as I stumble through this life.
I’ll leave you with these:
4 tips for a healthy life from a Traditional Chinese Medicine Master
Master Li practicing Qigong.
1. Exercise. Exercise makes all of our internal organs harmonize. Eat fresh foods and foods with lots of fiber. Only when your organs function normally can your body be balanced and stay healthy.
2. Enjoy the happiness within. I collect beautiful calligraphies and paintings. I have many collections hanging on my walls. After a busy day of work, I like to drink tea, relax and enjoy my beautiful art. Nurturing your inner happiness builds your character and prolongs your life.
3. Get close to nature. I love to travel and have travelled around all the famous scenic natural places in China. Nature nurtures the soul and makes you feel in balance with the world.
4. Harmony. My biggest secret to nourishing life is harmony. When dealing with things and people, be humble, be kind, be generous, be grateful and behave harmoniously.
Written by Jenny McAllister
Explore this slideshow of Jenny’s shoot with Medicine Master Li in China: