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February 18, 2012

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Reviving Dai ethnic medicine

AI Handan, a 51-year-old pharmacist at a hospital in southwest China's Yunnan Province, has been lamenting the decline of his craft in recent years.

The type of pharmacology Ai practices is not seen in most hospitals. Ai deals in Dai ethnic pharmacology, which dates back more than 2,500 years and uses rare herbs and other botanicals.

"Resources for finding rare herbs have been drained. More worry, fewer people are interested in hearing about traditional medicine," he says.

Ai works at China's only Dai ethnic hospital, located in Yunnan's Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture. Dai ethnic medicine is based on a Buddhist belief that both the world and the human body are made up of four basic elements - wind, fire, water and earth.

"Dai ethnic medicine is nature's gift to the Dai people," Ai says. In the past, formulas for Dai medicines were inscribed on palm leaves that were passed on from generation to generation. However, this practice, as well as many other features of Dai ethnic medicine, has largely been lost on younger generations.

Ai's eldest son, 23-year-old Ai Kan, has rejected his father's medical practice, choosing instead to plant rubber on the hillsides surrounding their home city.

"Learning the craft is not easy, and a good return is not promised," Ai Kan saya.

To help preserve traditional practices, Ai has been tutoring 49 students as part of a Dai ethnic medicine program at the Xishuangbanna Vocational and Technical Institute.

Since 2008, more than 200 students have studied Dai ethnic medicine at the institute, taking academic courses and serving a one-year internship at the hospital where Ai works.

The curriculum includes basic Dai medicine theory, diagnostic methods and traditional prescriptions. The textbooks were created by interviewing local villagers and writing down the treatments they described.

Ai has also been purchasing palm leaf manuscripts from local farmers.

Zeng Jiefeng, a 21-year-old third-year student, hopes to combine her knowledge of Dai ethnic medicine with traditional Chinese medicine.

Having both Dai and Han ancestry, Zeng has an advantage over some classmates since she is able to read Chinese characters as written by the Dai people. But only four of her classmates are Dai people and few in the group have shown interest in learning Dai medicine.

Though he has taught more than 200 students over the last few years, there's no renaissance in Dai ethnic medicine. Those who study it have difficulty finding relevant work after graduation.

"Only two of the people who graduated the year before me continued to practice Dai medicine. The others returned to their hometowns or took up unrelated jobs," Zeng says.

Although registered certifications for practicing Dai ethnic medicine became nationally recognized in July 2006, actual jobs in the field have not been created, Ai says. The hospital where he works cannot supply enough jobs for graduates, and scattered private Dai medicine clinics cannot provide stable working environments.

"The Dai hospital has not publicly recruited graduates in recent years and the insufficient development of Dai medicine and its industrialization have hindered the growth of the field," Ai says.

Zeng seems equally pessimistic. "If everyone leaves the field, there is no possibility the tradition will be inherited and promoted."

Zeng says her dream is to further her study in higher education to combine the knowledge of Dai and traditional Chinese medicine.


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