I grew up in rural Germany in a family engaged in the cultivation of medicinal herbs. Following an apprenticeship as a gardener I moved to England to study phytotherapy (Western herbal medicine) and Chinese medicine. Further studies led me to China, where I completed three years of postgraduate training at Beijing and Shanghai Universities of Chinese Medicine and also apprenticed with several nationally renowned physicians. I have also studied Kampo and other East Asian medical traditions. My clinical studies led to a deepening academic involvement with East Asian medicines, which I pursued at the University of Cambridge, the School of African and Oriental Studies (London), and the University of Westminster, where I was Professor of East Asian Medicines and Director of EASTmedicine (East Asian Sciences and Traditions in Medicine). I gained a deeper understanding of the history of East Asian medicines and understood, above all, that nothing exists outside history. Another way to put this is to say that there is no “authentic” Chinese or East Asian medicine out there preserved in ancient texts or oral transmissions or summed up in modern textbooks. Instead, it is always made anew by people in the here and now drawing on resources from the past but aligning them with others from the present. There is thus no “real” or “false” Chinese or East Asian medicines, though there are certainly better and worse ways of aligning past and present.
By nature, I am an intellectual who likes to think outside of the box. But I am also a hands-on person who wants to see concrete change. My parents taught me that the only life worth living is one that seeks to make the world a better place, whether or not one succeeds in doing so. I started travelling and exploring different cultures in my early teens and was incredibly lucky to grow up at a time when it was possible to do so safely without needing much money. I have also been lucky in that the right people, books and ideas seem to appear in my life just when I need them. In return, I am grateful that in Chinese medicine I have found a field of practice that allows me to draw all of these idiosyncratic interests and ambitions into a single pursuit, a pursuit furthermore that becomes ever more rewarding as time goes on – hopefully not only for myself but also for my patients and students.
A few years ago, without me searching him out, the seventeenth century physician, thinker and Buddhist monk Yu Chang 喻昌 (1585-1664) appeared in my life. Through him I discovered a fascinating period in the history of Chinese medicine that few of us (historians and practitioners alike) know much about: a period of great innovation, of challenging the past and imagining different futures, of aligning different intellectual and cultural traditions (Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism but also Western and Arab knowledge) in new and exciting ways. Most importantly, Yu Chang forced me to think through some of my own attachments and how to let go of them. Chinese medicine is full of surprises and a resource for so much more than herbal formulas or acupuncture techniques.