On a low couch to China

Once a week I swap the noise and frantic life of the Chiswick High Road for this quiet, warm treatment room at the far end of a corridor, to lie very still on a couch for forty minutes. Mustn’t move much or try to lie on my side, because there are fine acupuncture needles protruding from various parts of my body and while lying still I can’t feel them at all, a change in position would make them sharply noticeable.

Anyway, why should I move? This is the ultimate luxury, to do nothing in great comfort and indulge in random thoughts, daydreams and suchlike frivolities. The soft tinkling background music  sounds like a miniature piano played by a gifted toddler; it flows along without structure or rhythm in a soothing Oriental manner –  just right for the occasion. Sometimes I hear a snatch of Chinese conversation outside in the corridor, sounding mildly indignant and melodious; it adds to the general atmosphere of  a mysterious elsewhere.

The needles make  me feel like a hedgehog in reverse, with spines upside down, except that Nature would never allow such a useless arrangement. Then the image of St Sebastian floats  into my awareness, the  beautiful half-naked young man tied to a tree and shot full of lethal arrows, martyred for his Christian faith by the Emperor Diocletian. Of course there’s no parallel here: poor Sebastian was killed by the arrows, while I am being peppered by needles in order to get me well.  Anyway, I should have Chinese daydreams, not Roman ones, so how about The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine, AKA Huangdi Neijing (there – I knew this would impress you), the 2000-plus years old fundamental source for Chinese medicine?

Well no, let’s stick to the here and now. I first came here a few weeks ago to get rid of the severe pain in my left shoulder that has been tormenting me for three years, resisting several kinds of massage, physiotherapy and exercise, and also to increase my chi, the vital energy that drives and maintains life; mine being rather low right now. How does the needling  work?  Apparently my body contains a network of meridians, and the needles inserted into certain sensitive points along them are able to remove blockages and restore normal functioning. I have no problem with this theory, but some time ago it did  cause an eminent British consultant   to slice open a dead body in search of meridians. He didn’t find anything (what did he  expect? silk ribbons in pretty colours?), upon which he dismissed acupuncture as a load of rubbish and a con trick, in the touchingly confident manner of old-fashioned materialists who have firm views on what they don’t understand.

I wish he could meet Dr L., the Chinese woman doctor whose patient I am; given a good interpreter, they would have a truly interesting discussion.  Dr.L. is slender, middle-aged and imperturbable. We get on well.  Her English is somewhat rudimentary, a kind of Chinglish, so when it comes to finer points,  we call in the young receptionist to interpret. But a lot is done without words: Dr. L. checks my pulses and my tongue in her tiny office – look, no computer, no electronics, just a map of the human body and a small plastic skeleton, so that she looks at me, not at a screen, which is refreshing.  She is gentle and ultra-careful with the needles, but  when she massages me, despite being so petite  she has the strength of a sumo wrestler and I often have to beg her to hold back a bit.

Dr L. can also be strict; for instance, she makes me  drink twice a day a herb tea of unimaginable awfulness which I have to prepare myself according to strict rules. Complex tastes are notoriously difficult to describe, so let me just  say that this one is both cloying and dull and lingers on for a long time. The worst part of it is that it seems to do me good.

Besides, it could be worse, as I discover when the inveterate researcher in me takes over. I soon learn that the first Chinese herbal record dates from 2800 BC, which makes the practice nearly 5000 years old. Since then some 13,000 medicinals have been regularly used in China, consisting largely of plant elements, but containing animal, human and mineral products as well.  Some of these extras, such as cow’s gallstones, sound alarming, but happily the traditional products of the human body, which I refuse to list, are no longer used. (Phew.)

Another ten minutes and Dr L. will arrive, to remove her twenty-odd needles and work on muscles I didn’t know I had. So I drift into a final reverie about this mysterious medical system that works today as well as it did 5000 years ago, perhaps branching out into new areas – for instance discovering a way to roll back the years and produce enough dragon-power chi, zest, energy, vigour and vitality to rejuvenate the more or less decrepit patients, like myself, who come here in search of healing? Why not, even if it involves cow’s gallstones or worse? As far as I am concerned, it can’t be done fast enough –

Ah, Dr L. Yes, thank you, I am feeling better.

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