Dai ethnic pharmacist tries to save his craft

Updated: 2012-03-09 09:12

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AI Handan, a pharmacist working at a hospital in southern 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, 51, deals in Dai ethnic pharmacology, which dates back 2,500 years and features the use of rare herbs and other botanicals.

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

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

"(Dai ethnic medicine) is nature's gift to the Dai ethnic group," Ai said.

Formulae for Dai medicines were inscribed on palm leaves that were passed on from generation to generation. But this practice, as well as many other features of Dai ethnic medicine, have largely been lost on younger generations.

Ai Kan, 23, Ai's oldest son, refuses to follow his father's career path, 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 said.

To help preserve the ancient medical practices, Ai has been tutoring 49 students as part of a Dai ethnic medicine program being offered 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 undergoing a one-year internship.

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

Ai has also been working to purchase palm leaf manuscripts from local farmers, each of which contain valuable information and formulae.

Zeng Jiefeng, 21, is in her third year of studying Dai ethnic medicine. She wishes to eventually combine her knowledge of Dai ethnic medicine with traditional Chinese medicine.

Despite having taught more than 200 students over the last few years, it is not known if Ai will be able to bring about a true renaissance in Dai ethnic medicine. Those who study the trade have difficulty securing relevant jobs after completing their studies.