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June 19, 2017

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The making of a traditional Chinese doctor

GERMAN Tim Vukan starts his day making a pot of herbal congee for his family. He then heads off to practice martial arts, rarely uses the air conditioner at work, and drinks hot flower tea — ingredients vary as the weather changes.

It all makes sense as Vukan is a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) doctor.

Vukan, 37, splits his time between Hangzhou and Hamburg. He started learning TCM in China from 2005, and received his master’s degree in 2015. His Chinese medical practice incorporates herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage (tuina), exercise (qigong), and dietary therapy.

The interview with Vukan was in the morning after his tai chi exercises. We went to a cafe, where he asked for hot tea and avoided the iced ones.

“Our body temperature is 37 degrees Celsius. So if we take foods under 37 degrees our stomach has to heat them up,” he explains. “It consumes energy, makes one feel tired and sleepy, and causes fatness that accumulates around the stomach.”

The German TCM therapist has come up with many metaphors to explain the complicated Chinese medicine theory.

For instance, he explains Yin as visible things — like liquid in the body — and Yang as invisible function — like a body’s defense mechanism.

“Water that carries a ship is ‘Yin,’ the force that pushes water is ‘Yang.’ A patient’s problem could lie in ‘Yin’ as there is not enough water, or in ‘Yang’ if there is little force,” Vukan says.

Explaining traditional Chinese medicine to Westerners is part of his job.

TCM website for foreigners

In 2008, he launched the Wushan TCM website ( for foreigners seeking medical treatment in China, TCM courses, and tours involving traditional medicine.

Vukan also does some translation work in TCM clinics.

“My aim is to reach more people out of China and introduce Chinese medicine to them,” he says.

In Hangzhou, the German has treated or helped many expatriates struggling with digesting, sleeping, and emotional disorders. “It is common. They face different culture, language, foods, and environment.”

Vukan says while western medicine treats patient when there is illness, Chinese medicine starts to treat at the first sign of malaise.

In a recent case a French woman who struggled with abdominal distention was cured through acupuncture and was told to avoid oily foods.

A Spanish woman who could not sleep well due to work pressure was told to clear up her mind before sleeping, because during nighttime Yang energy goes over Yin energy, and using the brain at that time hinders.

“It is like we charge phone at night and use it in daytime,” Vukan says, adding he also gave the lady acupuncture and medicine.

Another big difference between Western and Chinese medicines is that patients suffering from the same illness can receive different Chinese therapies.

Because headache for example, in TCM theories, is only a result, but what needs to be fixed is the reason that causes the problem. “A headache could be caused by coldness, too much cold drink, staying in air-conditioned room for too long, or emotional problem,” says the therapist. “We don’t solve different problems with one aspirin.”

“TCM balances our body on aspects such as sleeping, nutrition, digestion, and emotion,” he adds. “The diagnosis is complex, based on the person’s behavior, working environment, mental status, and many other elements.”

“Though some people don’t believe the empirical science,” Vukan says. “TCM is not a religion, you don’t have to believe it. Just let the therapist diagnose.”

“I support TCM strongly because I tried everything before I give it to others.”

Martial arts fascination

Bruce Lee and Chinese martial arts fascinated Vukan since childhood. When he was 18 years old he started learning kung fu from a Chinese practitioner in his hometown Hamburg.

As the young Vukan felt his “qi” (life-energy) in the body, the teacher instructed him on how to use the “qi” and how to activate “meridian,” a concept in traditional Chinese medicine about a path through which the qi flows.

In 2004, Vukan toured China, and soon decided to stay and learn Chinese medicine in the country.

But a foreigner learning Chinese medicine is extremely difficult. Because all classical Chinese medicine theories are written in ancient Chinese language that even Chinese people struggle with, besides the abundant basic knowledge that needs recitation, such as herbals and acupuncture points.

Vukan started with a one-year language program first. He still remembers the first class.

“I joined the course in the middle, so my first class was a test. I didn’t have an idea on how I should put the paper.”

After the language study he went to college, first in Yunnan Province, and then to Zhejiang Chinese Medicine University in Hangzhou. The university so far has taken in over 3,000 foreign students.

Then he took internship and worked in several local TCM clinics. Two years ago he received the master’s degree from the university.

Having spent a total of 10 years studying, Vukan says he feels satisfied.

“I know how hard it was before I started. Now I enjoy the feeling that I do everything by myself.”

Few years ago Vukan married a Chinese girl and they now have a 4-year-old daughter. He plans to have his own TCM clinic in Hamburg one day.


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