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May 6, 2023

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Bitter medicine and blunt advice: the roses and the thorns

ALTHOUGH traditional Chinese medicine is generally deemed “alternative medicine” in the West, it has been nearly the only medical system to treat all kinds of illness in China for several thousand years.

Even today, many Chinese patients go to TCM doctors when Western medicine can’t help or proves ineffective.

Traditionally, TCM prescriptions are prepared in forms of decoctions or herb tea and bolus, even though some of remedies come in tablets and capsules nowadays, just like the Western medicines.

Decoction, the most common form of TCM medicine, is a concentrated liquor made by boiling a prescribed combination of different herbs. Dark in color, such decoctions usually taste bad and can be extremely bitter.

However, Chinese people believe that the bitterer, the better in curing illness, leading to the popular saying liangyao kukou liyubing, or “good medicine tastes bitter to the mouth, but it’s effective in curing ailments.”

This saying is usually followed by zhongyan nier liyuxing, or “sincere and honest advice sounds blunt but helps to put one on the right track.”

The Chinese proverb about bitter medicine and blunt advice seems to echo ancient Roman poet Ovid’s quote: “The sharp thorn often produces delicate roses.” Likewise, Israeli-American fantasy author Leigh Bardugo wrote: “Love speaks in flowers; truth requires thorns.”


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