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Why don't people live as long as they could?

In a display case at the Shanghai Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine in China, sits an old copy of an ancient medical book. There's a line in it that reads, "When epidemics come strongly, populations will tend to die suddenly." I've been thinking about that line a lot lately. For all the progress that has occurred in the last 2000-3000 years since that line was written, not much seems to have changed.

Many of Chinese Medicine's great innovators worked in the wake of large scale epidemics. The physician Zhang Zhong Jing - father of syndrome differentiation - famously lost two-thirds of his family in the epidemics at the end of the Eastern Han period (25-220 CE). And, in a village not far from the home of Wu You Ke - the first Chinese Medicine physician to write about transmissible, disease-causing agents - no one survived the epidemic of 1642.

Zhang and Wu's texts are also in the Shanghai Museum of TCM, along with many others - somewhere around 6000. A significant number of these texts cover the subject of infectious diseases and their treatments, which is not surprising when you consider how much of Chinese Medicine was built on epidemics. What's really interesting, though, is that some of the descriptions in these texts sound a lot like COVID-19.

That doesn't seem right, does it? In a museum in China, there's a potential goldmine of COVID-19 remedies. At the very least, there's a stack of clues that could direct research into treatment. Why haven't we heard more about it? Because it's in China, a country with which America has had a strained (if not contemptuous) relationship for nearly 200 years. And because it's not strictly modern medicine. I'd tell you about that stack of clues, but we have bigger fish to fry...

Welcome to Turtle Tree. The previous post told you how we got here and introduced something called "The Great Reset". It's an idea from World Economic Forum Founder and Executive Chairman, Klaus Schwab, that we have a rare opportunity as we emerge from a pandemic and economic crisis to make the kind of foundational changes today that enable a healthier, sustainable, and just world tomorrow. This post will focus on our health, specifically, something that left many Americans vulnerable to serious illness and death from SARS-CoV-2 and a path to insuring a better result next time.

The idea that a Chinese Medicine museum holds a clue that could treat a pandemic might sound farfetched, but it's not. In the 1980s, a Chinese pharmacist and researcher named Youyou Tu discovered the molecule artemesinin - an active component in the plant Artemisia annua L. that has been used to treat malaria - by investigating more than 2000 Chinese herbal medicine preparations.

At one point in the investigation, an extraction of Artemisia showed promise, but Tu's team couldn't reproduce the results. Seeking an explanation, they completed an exhaustive literature review. The only reference they could find about the use of Artemisia to relieve malarial symptoms was from a 400 year-old copy of a 1700 year-old text titled A Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies by the physician Ge Hong. It read, "A handful of qinghao [the Chinese name for Artemisia annua L.] immersed with 2 liters of water, wring out the juice and drink it all."

Reading this sentence, Tu had the idea that the heating process she had used during recent extractions might have destroyed the active components. She switched to a lower temperature procedure and indeed observed significant antimalarial activity.

Tu's discovery has saved millions of lives worldwide, and she won the Nobel prize in physiology for it in 2015. The ancient book she used also sits in a Chinese Medicine museum.

When I visited the Shanghai museum at the end of 2014, I bought a small paperback copy of the first ancient book; the one with the line about epidemics coming strongly. It's called the Yellow Emperor's Internal Classic (Huang Di Nei Jing). I keep it in my backpack and bring it with me everywhere I go. It's the foundational text of traditional Chinese Medicine; the application of ancient Chinese philosophy to the practice of healing disease.

The book's namesake, the Yellow Emperor, was a prehistoric (21st century BCE) thearch who, as legend tells it, invented such things as carts, boats, clothing, the bow and arrow, math calculations, astronomy, the Chinese calendar, and an early Chinese version of football. He also wrote this book.

That's fable, of course. In reality, the Yellow Emperor's Internal Classic was the work of many scholars, large and small, known and unknown, who revised and transmitted it from one generation to the next until the printing press allowed mass production in the 12th century. But in ancient China, when you wrote a great book that you wanted people to read, you were not in the habit of putting your name on it. You put a great person's name on it instead.

Imagine if I wrote a book about happiness and put my name on it. How many people do you think would buy it? Now, set honesty and transparency aside, and consider how many people would buy it if I put the Dalai Lama's name on it? The Yellow Emperor was worth reading. He was also, as you might have guessed, mythological; a symbol representing the beginnings of Chinese culture.

The Yellow Emperor's Internal Classic is a story about a king and his doctors. The king, the Yellow Emperor, is trying to understand physiology, disease, and healing and how they relate to universal law. He engages in what becomes an epic Q&A with one particular sage-physician called Qibo. The first question the Yellow Emperor asks Qibo is essentially Why don't people live as long as they used to? Qibo answers, "The people of high antiquity*, they knew The Way."

"The Way" is an important philosophical concept. It is Nature's Law; the principles that formed the universe, govern its workings, keep it harmonious, and prevent it from descending into disorder and chaos. We're going to explore the idea of The Way a lot in this blog, but I had to start with it. It's impossible to talk about disease and disease prevention in Chinese Medicine without talking about The Way.

Qibo has just told the king that people used to live longer because they knew the rules of Nature. He could have ended right there and the king would have had all the information he needed to seek a long life and prevent illness. Follow The Way. But Qibo does not stop there. He and the other doctors go on for 81 chapters about the human condition and its relationship to The Way. The entire cannon is essentially a discourse on The Way as it relates to health.

Imagine if the Yellow Emperor asked that question today. Except, instead of asking about lifespan, which is relatively long today due to life-sustaining medical technologies, the Yellow Emperor asked, Why is there more chronic disease today than there used to be? Would Qibo's answer be any different?

The Great Reset is a reaction to this particular moment in time, when many dysfunctions of the status quo have been laid bare by the pandemic. One of those dysfunctions is chronic disease, or more specifically, the behaviors that have lead to an increased prevalence of chronic diseases in the modern world. The pandemic has showed us what a liability chronic disease is when something like a new virus comes along. How did humankind come to take on such a liability? By not knowing or following Nature's rules.

Modern humans have lost touch with the natural world in many ways. We've built, live on, walk on, and sleep on structures that separate us from the natural world. We watch things, read things, and play on things instead of interacting with the natural world. We eat unnatural, processed foods; work by unnatural, electric light; and sit unnaturally long hours on manufactured surfaces. And, most significantly, we isolate ourselves from the greatest natural source of wisdom and support that human beings possess: the tribe. The result is chronic disease, and our survival hangs in the balance.

Qibo's advice hasn't changed: Follow The Way. This post ends with that simple call, but don't worry, like Qibo, I'll go on. This blog is essentially a treatise about Nature's rules - relearning them and reconnecting.


* The ancient Chinese liked to talk about some long-ago, golden age - "high antiquity" - as if it were the source of all virtue and good. The habit's not unique to the Chinese. My parents would talk about 1950s America as if they were describing a Norman Rockwell painting. If you probed them about it, you would discover that their parents would speak of the 1920s with the same reverence, and, they presumed, so did their grandparents about the last years of the 19th century. So it probably was with the "people of high antiquity".


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