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Making fun of doctors: An excerpt from an 18th-century Chinese novel

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A few months ago, I mentioned I was reading The Story of the Stone. It's a good, long book - a novel written in the 18th century about the rise and fall of a high-ranking Chinese family - and I'm still reading it.

I had to laugh at this scene I read yesterday. A doctor has written up a prescription for the beautiful and intelligent but sickly Lin Daiyu (she's the hero's true love), and is discussing it with sleazy and none-too-bright Jia Lian, one of the men in the family:

The doctor wrote out a prescription of seven items and an adjuvant to go with it. Jia Lian took the paper and glanced down the list.

"I see you include Hare's Ear in your prescription," he said. "Forgive me if I am wrong, but I thought that was ruled out in haematic eruptions?"

"You must be thinking," replied Doctor Wang with a knowledgeable smile, "of its emetic properties, which, as is well known, contra-indicate this particular herb in cases of haemoptysis or epistaxis. But allow me to inform you that in preparation with Turtle's Blood (as in my prescription), Hare's Ear constitutes the only effective remedy we have for draining the humour of the Lesser Yang periphery of the gall-bladder. You see, the judicious admixture of Turtle's Blood has the remarkable effect of inhibiting the emetic properties of Hare's Ear, while enabling it to restore the hepatic Yin and check the phlogistic disturbance. In the words of the Ars Medicandi: "Obstructa obstruit, aperitque aperta." And the - at first sight - paradoxical inclusion of Hare's Ear is none other than the classic stratagem of the loyal counsellor befriending the usurper..."

"I see," said Jia Lian, nodding appreciatively. "Thank you for enlightening me, Doctor Wang."

I guess people have been laughing for centuries at doctors for using abstruse language to impress and confuse. And I liked seeing doltish Jia Lian fall for the nonsense. But it doesn't bode well for lovely Lin Daiyu that she's being ministered to by this charlatan.

Illustration by Xu Bao

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