How the Industrial Use of Animals in Chinese Medicine Began

Mao’s Bestiary is a revisionist historical account of the animal drug industry in Mao’s China that also gives context to current debates about zoonoses and the use of wild animals for health purposes.

Mao’s Bestiary: Medicinal Animals and Modern China by Liz PY Chee was released in May 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continued its murderous course around the world for the second year in a row.

There was palpable anger against China and the Chinese people since the new virus apparently emerged from the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, Hubei, in 2019, where all kinds of wildlife were sold.

Chinese medicine has always advocated the use of animal parts. Bencao Gangmuwritten by Ming period physician Li Shizhen in the 16th century, lists 400 animals that can be used as “medicine”.

But that list of “medicinal animals” grew to 2,341 in 2013, Chee said, citing the third edition of the state-sanctioned journal. Zhongguo yao yong dong wu zhi (Medicinal Fauna of China) published that year. What changed? Well, that’s what this book is about.

Chee focuses on a hitherto neglected period of Chinese history, as it relates to animals in Chinese medicine. From the beginning of communist rule under Mao Zedong in 1949 until the end of the country’s first decade of economic reforms under its leader Deng Xiaoping in 1989, Chinese medicine has been pharmaceutical. These 40 years have led to the industrial use of animals, the production and marketing of medicines on an industrial scale, both in China and abroad.

The foundations of China’s state-owned pharmaceutical sector were laid between 1950 and 1957. Communist China’s immediate goal, with regard to medicines (and other sectors as well), was to become self-sufficient.

Chee notes how the nascent state drew on influences from all sides – the previous Republican period, Western and Japanese research. At that time, the focus was more on herbs than on animal tissue, writes Chee. The conditions that would eventually lead to the use of animals on an “industrial scale” accumulated.

One was China’s alliance with the Soviet Union. The two “brother countries,” writes Chee, shared a common border and, subsequently, similar floral and faunal populations. Both also shared an interest in the medicinal use of animals.

Both also wanted to create versions of Western drugs using local substitutes. China and the Soviet Union collaborated in the breeding of deer to use the antlers as medicine, as well as ginseng, a prized herb.

It was with the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) that the industrialized production of animal-derived medicine really began.

This was the period when the Chinese communists devised mechanisms to accelerate industrialization and attempted to involve the country’s huge rural population in dealing with its industrial and agricultural problems.

“The ideological increase in production quotas during these years affected all sectors, including the production of medicines, which in turn brought more attention to animal tissues as an underutilized medicinal resource” , notes Chee.

Even species that had not been commercially targeted were now being used. Sharks (for oil), musk deer, seahorses, ground beetles, scorpions, snakes, all began to be bred around this time.

The fourth is perhaps the most engaging of the book’s five chapters. Its approximately 40 pages tell the story of Chinese medicine during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1977), when folk remedies were experimented with and “innovated”.

The results were bizarre. People are injecting themselves with chicken blood, wrapping their wounds with toad heads, drinking the raw blood of geese and ducks, all “part of a growing movement to find cheaper alternatives to biomedicine and” “potential miracle cures in previously overlooked animal tissues”. Notes of cheese.

The final chapter tells the story of rampant poaching of tigers, rhinos, pangolins and other species we see today. The reason: Deng Xiaoping’s reform decade of 1978-89. Animals and their body parts became even more commercialized at this time.

Chee writes: “In his projection of the future of animal medicine, student Chi Cheng wrote in 1989: ‘As long as there are animals, a medicinal use can be found for every part and every tissue.’ “

Illustration: Ritika Bohra

The most emblematic animal of this period was the bear, which was raised for its bile in the country, showing that the Chinese medicine of today is not that which was practiced years ago.

The use of bear gallbladder as medicine was first recorded during the Tang period (618 to 907 CE) and was thought to cure a handful of illnesses. Today, some 40 years after Deng’s reforms, bear bile is considered the elixir of life even in the country’s popular culture and is the go-to medicine for all ailments.

Chee’s work thus presents the nuances that most people on either side of this very acrimonious debate would otherwise miss: Chinese medicine may be quackery or a living world heritage, but it is certainly not what we see today.

Finally, a warning: Among those angry with China for COVID-19 was this critic. His interview with American surgeon David Gorski, who called Chinese medicine a global threat, is quoted by Chee in the book (“Chinese medicine’s use of animals is a threat to the whole world”, April 7, 2020, Down to earth).

This reviewer, after flipping through his book, notes with regret that his anger was misplaced. Yes, Chinese medicine is a threat to the world. But it was not always so. It only became so in the last century.

This was first published in the April 16-30, 2022 edition of Down to earth