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Doctor who cured a patient by prescribing a poem

THE DOCTOR WAS BAFFLED. His patient, a nurse, had severe problems with his sleep patterns. But neither western medicine nor Chinese medicine had helped.

The medical man, whose name was Bian Zhaoxiang, listened carefully to the patient’s description of his symptoms and his lifestyle, and prescribed medications he thought would help.

But they didn’t.

Two weeks later, the nurse had returned to say that they had failed.

Chinese medicine is largely plant-based. Image: Judith Zimmerman/ Unsplash

Doctor Bian was baffled, and stumped about what to try next. Worse still, he had medical students watching him, expecting him to know what to do.


Then something occurred to him. One of the central elements of Chinese medical philosophy was to avoid thinking of patients as people with standardized needs who need standardized medicines. Patients needed to be seen individually and holistically with physical and mental problems recognized as parts of the same issue.

Doctor Bian realized that the nurse could not sleep because he was worrying about not being able to sleep. Looked at that way, he realized that the way to solve the man’s problem was to change his thinking. And Dr Bian knew how to do it.

He had a copy of his favorite Chinese poem in his office. He took it and handed it to the man.

“Here’s what you need,” he said.


After the nurse had left the room, the doctor’s students stared at him. “You didn’t give him any herbs at all,” one of them said. “You prescribed… a poem?” That was something they had never read about at medical school.

Two months later, the doctor was visited by a bright-eyed man who said: “You don’t remember me, do you? I came to you two months ago.”

The nurse, transformed beyond recognition, explained that he had taken the poem and framed it, placing it where he could see it all the time. It had become his philosophy – and now he slept like a baby.


Dr Bian had found the poem in a Buddhist temple in the central Chinese city of Chengdu. It was written, of course, in Chinese characters. But a colloquial translation into modern English would be something like this:

When something important

Needs to be done

Just do it.

Or decide not to.

Because the issue is not whether you do it or not,

But realizing the need to put things down and move on.

Wisdom comes from realization;

Realization comes from contemplation;

Contemplation comes from tranquillity.

And that’s when the troubles that bind your life


The nurse had put away his fears of not being able to sleep—and solved his insomnia.


That doctor now lives in Hong Kong. Professor Bian Zhaoxiang is a senior professor at Hong Kong Baptist University and director of the Hong Kong Chinese Medicine Clinical City Center. He’s clearly excited by the growth of interest in his specialist field.

Professor Bian was interviewed by Herman Hu on Friday Beyond Spotlights.

While Chinese medicine was once dismissed in the west as suspect or worthless “folk remedies”, it is now widely recognized that the field must be taken seriously. More than 200 compounds from traditional Chinese medicine have crossed over into Western medicine, and one Chinese medical researcher, Tu Youyou, won a Nobel Prize for saving millions of lives from malaria, with a compound described in an ancient Chinese book.

“In Germany, they have a Chinese medicine hospital which has been around for 30 years,” Dr Bian told host Herman Hu Shao-ming on Friday Beyond Spotlights.  In Australia, three government-supported university provide full courses in Chinese medicine, and in the United States, there are about 30 centers for “complementary medicine”, of which the majority is Chinese medicine.

You can watch the show below, or you can scroll down to continue reading about Professor Bian.


“Chinese and western medicine are different but deal with the same targets,” Dr Bian said. “Prevention, treatment and rehabilitation.”

Yet they are not the same. “The difference is that we see that Chinese medicine is holistic; it is natural; and it is also individualized.” In contrast, western medicine is organ-based, standardized and chemical-based, he said.

Dr Bian said that practitioners of Chinese medicine were less likely to have standardized treatments for ailments, and more likely to recognize that everyone needs an individually tailored treatment.

“Different people have different characteristics, they have different appetites, they have different lifestyles,” he said. “The disease base is different.”


The medical academic said that Hong Kong is the perfect hub for the growth of the sector, with its east-west hybrid personality, and its skills in business and finance. The Hong Kong government is creating a Chinese medicine hospital, and also a testing and accreditation center.

A Chinese Medicine Hospital will open in Hong Kong in 2025. Image: FEHD, Hong Kong Government

“I think the Chinese medicine hospital will be a flagship in education and also in product development,” he said. And now just for the city, but for the region, and the country.

There are lines that businesses can start looking at immediately, he said. One example is the Chinese treatments for Covid, such as Lianhua Qingwen, which clearly speeds up recovery. As the present waves of Covid die down, and the focus moves to Long Covid, treatments which really work will fall into the spotlight around the world. At the moment, Lianhua Qingwen is widely used in Hong Kong and mainland China, but deserves to find markets internationally.


Professor Bian also feels that the philosophy behind Chinese medicine should also find success internationally. The move away from standardization towards a greater focus on holistic needs of each individual patient was valuable in itself, and should be more widely spread.

Yet while it’s great that the compounds in Chinese medicine are being recognized as value around the world, the more important thing is the philosophy behind it, the academic says. When asked to produce a physical item that has been a touchstone for his life, he doesn’t produce a stethoscope or any other medical tool.

Instead, he produces his favorite poem—the one quoted above. Ultimately, the inner has more command over the self than the outer.  

And that, ultimately, is where the uniqueness lies: in the way Chinese medicine unites ancient knowledge about the organic compounds and the body, with a philosophy of health and well-being.

During the filming of the interview, Professor Bian noticed that his interviewer Herman Hu had a strong pulse “like that of an 18-year-old”. The interviewer said he was a tennis player and had a healthy appetite for his wife’s healthy soup.

“Soup: that’s the secret,” the Professor said.

Friday Beyond Spotlights is a show in which knowledgeable figures from Hong Kong engage in conversation with a host, with one person featured in each show. For the full playlist, click this line. All images are from the show.

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