Love Song to a Chinese Cough Syrup

herb insert picThere’s a way to feel better if you have a cough and sore throat: Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa, a loquat syrup full of flowers, leaves, roots and bulbs. It works by the spoon, or in hot water as tea. Chinese Robitussin, if you will, but so much better. Pei Pa Koa is so popular in China (and 20 countries of Asia), the stacked boxes in mid-winter at Kam Man, nearby Chinese mega-supermarket in E. Hanover, NJ, is practically floor-to-ceiling. I buy in triplicate.

The TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) formula, commercially bottled in the ’40s in Hong Kong, dates back 500 years to the reign of Emperor Kangxi (fourth ruler of the Qing dynasty). filial piety pictureThe logo shows a child serving it to an elderly, bedridden parent. (The legend, or back story: A child, ancestor of the company’s founders, went looking to cure his mother’s cough, and so impressed a doctor with his tender filial piety, the doctor gave up his secret formula.) I’m not calling domination by an oppressively close family a good relationship. But I find the emblem sweet.

Active ingredient is either the bulb (korm) of the fritillaria flower–says Kam Man pharmacist and the Internet — or elm bark, say the National Institutes of Health. I’m not taking sides. Other herbs: loquat leaf extract (beautiful photos of these leaves, fruits, and root extracts in this blog post by a TCM student), adenophora root, poria mushroom, citrus peel, root of platycodon (–that’s campanula, Chinese bell flower–I’ve grown this lovely, small, late-summer flower), pinellia tuber, trichosanths seed, polygala root, licorice root, ginger rhizome, schizandra fruit, and peppermint. These herbs are traditionally associated with clearing up phlegm, alleviating cough, and soothing sore throat.*

Campanula or Chinese bell flower

Campanula or Chinese bell flower

The National Institute of Health’s National Library of Medicine calls Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa “a pleasant tasting natural herbal based liquid especially formulated for relief of minor discomfort and to protect irritated areas in sore mouth and sore throat. Contains No Alcohol, artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives. Active ingredient: Elm Bark. In a sucrose syrup and honey base of herbal extracts consisting of loquat leaf, fritillary, balloon flower root, snakegourd seed, sand root, senega root, tuckahoe, licorice root, ginger root, five flavored seed, and peppermint.

The package insert illustrates each one with great botanical drawings. The flowers seem to be dancing. Which is how I feel after finishing my mug.

How we love you, Pei Pa Koa.

*Institute of Traditional Medicine: “Some of the alkaloids have been isolated and used for pharmacology testing, revealing antitussive effects, smooth muscle relaxation, and reduction of blood pressure. There are also diterpenes in the bulb, and these may have antitussive effects as well.”

Laoshan: the Taoist Holy Mountain and the Beer

lao shan seasidekeny in temple gate
Laoshan is a Taoist holy mountain near Qingdao (the business & economics department was generous and sent us in a car with Kenny’s tutor and a lovely 15-year-old boy who hangs with Kenny) Guidebook says it has 72 temples. We saw three — on the coast and up on the misty, rocky peak.

Sea fairies

Sea fairies

The air is clean and wet. The landscape is pine and some bamboo forest ( native?). The mountain’s history goes back 16 centuries, but mostly to the 110s when a Taoist sect was established here, and monks lived in caves.

Laoshan cave

Laoshan cave

There are several peaks, not too high (a few thousand feet) — we summitted one (with the help of a chairlift!).  As always, with Chinese holy mountains, you ascend and descend via staircases. This one was surrounded by streams (used to chill drinks being sold trailside) and cultivated flowers. I noticed wild foxtail lily. Also plenty of tiger lilies.

Taoist shrine, Laoshan holy mountain

Taoist shrine, Laoshan holy mountain

The Taoist pantheon is still beyond me. But I noticed the elements of nature — so powerful in Taoism — appear as decorative borders on the gods’ robes in the shrines: rainbows, the waves of the sea, clouds, mountains. A few worshippers — not many.
hollyhocks at temple
A sign in the parking lot: “Feudal superstitious activity” is explicitly banned. These kind of old Communist signs don’t have any real relationship to the China we know; though — to be sure — if you were gunning for a big job and you were known to avidly practice a “feudal” faith, I’m sure this would impede your career prospects.

No feudal superstitious activity such as fortune-telling or divination!

No feudal superstitious activity such as fortune-telling or divination!

Laoshan holy mountain's rocky coast

Laoshan holy mountain’s rocky coast

The coastline is a whole new Chinese landscape to us. Korea isn’t far — a cheap ferry. Wish we had time! Qingdao’s a popular resort, with a golf course and lots of fancy villas where — I don’t know — the rich, Party members, both, take holidays.

Laoshan Taoist temple with trumpet vine

Laoshan Taoist temple with trumpet vine

But it’s not only the elite that enjoy the resort: (see blow) — even Taoist dogs get a terrific place to live at one of Laoshan’s temples.
taoist dog house

lao shan stairs
I’d heard wealthy businessmen have begun funding restoration of some of the old temples (Taoist and Buddhist). I thought this suggested a risign interest in heritage and preservation. Kenny’s tutor said that in his opinion, it was an attempt by people who had ill-gotten gains to cleanse their consciences of their many sins.

dragon detail

laoshan taoist god of the sea and rainbow

lao shan trailside tea house

lao shan above the lake
Taoism is associated strongly with herbalism (originally, alchemy) and we saw some extraordinary herbalists along the trail. Not only the usual array of mushrooms, grasses and fungus buttons, but in this case, sealife: dried snakes, anemones, seahorses.

laoshan herbalist selling dried snake

laoshan herbalist selling dried snake

lao shan herbalist seahorses

lao shan herbalist dried lizard
Laoshan’s clear mountain streams were originally used in Tsingtao beer. Laoshan is a holy mountain– & a beer label. Laoshan Beer  was acquired recently by Tsingtao. We completed the day with a toast. Possibly Kenny’s favorite part.Laoshan beer: a toast after hiking Laoshan

Laoshan beer: a toast after hiking Laoshan

Beer is, of course, a central theme in this stay in Qingdao/Tsingtao, China’s beer city. Personally, I liked the Qingdao better. The Laoshan was drier and crisp — good. But named after a holy mountain? You’re expecting an almost godly experience in a glass. Not so much.

Laoshan Beer (now owned by Tsingtao brewery)

Laoshan Beer (now owned by Tsingtao brewery)

We did the hike on July 7, which our wise 15-year-old noted marked the day Japan invaded China about 70 years ago. The anger even now is still fresh at the table when they talked about the war — young people, as if it was only yesterday.

An American Boy in China (watch video)

Adventures of a third grader in Beijing for a year. All about having fun in China, the land and its geography, history and politics, and visiting China’s different regions and peoples. Do shadow puppetry, ride a camel in the Gobi, make dumplings on a farm, and cheer for the Guoan (World Peace) soccer team.

Dr. Ho, David’s Qi, and Ezra Pound

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, 15,000'


Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (15,000′) is holy to the Naxi (“nashi”) people, whose priest lives up there, with a tourist chairlift. The Naxi, a matriarchal Chinese minority related to Tibetans, traditionally worship the spirits of rocks, rivers, and especially this mountain, which grows some 500 healing herbs, many unknown elsewhere (also: 300 different rhododendrons).

In this botanical wonderland east of the Himalayas, in China’s southwest Yunnan province, David had a consultation with the famous village healer, Dr. Ho, a figure of great cross-cultural interest. “I was raised by Christian missionaries,” Ho told the Daily Telegraph, (in one of many news stories). “But there were many other religions, too – Muslim, Buddhism, Confucianism and Naxi.”

Tibetan monastery near Baisha, Lijiang

In 1986, Bruce Chatwin wrote a travel piece in the Times which made Ho, and his clinic in Baisha, a tiny mountain village at 8,000′, something of an international legend. Chatwin was fascinated (as we were, as everyone would be) with the Naxi: “Their religion is a combination of Tibetan Lamaism, Chinese Taoism and a far, far older shamanistic belief: in the spirits of cloud and wind and pine,” Chatwin wrote.

Shamanism didn’t go over well with the Red Guards. Ho lost everything (but his herbal–a 19th-century edition of The Book of Flowers–buried safely under his floorboards) to attacks and round-ups during the Cultural Revolution. His books were burned and he was thrown in prison.

Times are way better now. He treats visitors from everywhere for donations, and locals for free. We went initially hoping to find something for altitude sickness. We were welcomed into his cluttered home office, attached to a storage room with big jugs of powdered herbs, roots, and mountain flowers. He sat David down and began a consultation concerning his habits, aches and pains, and lifestyle and well-being.

Dr. Ho's herbal medicine storeroom

David would prefer to start this blog post this way:

“What I love is, in Baisha (Dr. Ho’s village, part of Lijiang), among innumerable Buddhas, shawls, tablecloths, time pieces, wandering dogs and free-range chickens, there is but one Dr. Ho. Perhaps 2 — his son, who is practicing to replace him. Though not anytime soon. The post has to give a sense of the stupid souvenirs. The dumb-ass stuff. And also that Dr. Ho has become part of the whole tourist trade.
That should be the beginning.” (David says).

“And include Tibetans throwing fireworks, not for the New Year but to get people away from the stalls of their competition. Write about the cobblestones, the dustiness of it, the bright sun, & almost overlooking Dr. Ho. And the woman before us who seemed to have a good consultation. And say that if you can’t afford to visit him for a consultation, you can reach him online for his teas (and the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Chinese Herbal Medicine Clinic) at jdsmchmcl@yahoo.com.cn.”

David continues: “He asked about my work, and detected from feeling my pulse that I had lower back problems and neck problems. He asked about my prostate and wondered if I had hemorrhoids (no). His check-up agreed with my known problems. He noted that unlike many Americans, I wasn’t obese. He checked alternating wrists 3 or 4 times and said my qi was pretty good. His skin was baby soft. He attributed it to his Healthy Tea, which he gave me wrapped in paper.”

"Healthy Tea"

“The donation we made was about $30, about the same as my co-payment in the U.S., and I got more face-time and bedside manner. The tea’s herbal mustiness reminds me of every health food shop I’ve ever been in. My qi may be balanced, but I got the sense he was going to outlive me.”

(Now 90, Dr. Ho is prepared to pass the baton to his son, Dr. Ho II, who chatted us up at the clinic. He said the Mayo Clinic has correspondence with Ho regarding a leukemia case.)

This story has several layers.

Unlike our David, Bruce Chatwin didn’t visit Dr. Ho for a medical consultation, but to learn about Ho’s teacher, Joseph Rock, an eccentric Austrian-American self-taught botanist who lived in Lijiang, funded by the National Geographic Society, 1920s-’40s, cataloging wild plants and traveling colonial-mandarin style with caravans of servants. Rock’s National Geographic articles inspired readers far from China, like the author of Lost Horizons — (who never left London). It coined the term Shangri La (probably a corruption of Shambhala, the mythical Tantric heaven-on-earth).

Naxi dance for donations

Ho’s mountain, and Lijiang (spelled “Li Chiang”) also turn up in Ezra Pound’s Cantos:

And over Li Chiang, the snow range is turquoise Rock’s world that he saved us for memory a thin trace in high air
Canto CXIII

Herbs of Lijiang

This northwest part of Yunan province — China’s ‘wild’ southwest, bordering Burma–is called “remote but accessible” (and Lijiang is “the best preserved ancient town in China”).

Lijiang canal

Lijiang cafe

A major road will soon cut through (we saw massive construction). The three vast gorges that rivers carved here, at the edge of the Tibetan plateau–the mighty Mekong, Yangtze and the Nu–are twice the depth (on average) of the Grand Canyon. (In the pic, we’re hiking a popular route on the Yangtze, Tiger Leaping Gorge.) The highest mountains exceed 20,000′. It can’t be a surprise that species, that traditional medicines, thrive here which exist nowhere else on earth.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Corn drying, Baisha

I wrote earlier, from Sichuan nextdoor, that this area’s a “biodiversity hotspot“. There are rare mammals — leopards (but the ones for sale are only dyed dog skins). And separated by the peaks and river valleys, a dozen unrelated ethnic groups like the Naxi still speaking so many different languages, still wearing traditional clothing. Although the women dancing in the picture above were doing it for tourist donations. Several Naxi orchestras perform ancient music for tourists, as well.

Naxi Orchestra

“Uneasy symbiosis” ? Our tourist presence helps preserve the old cultures, deeply embedded in this astonishing landscape, which might otherwise disappear as young people move to cities. Logging caused massive flooding, so when it was banned, tourism became the biggest game in town. During Lunar New Year week, millions of newly middle-class Chinese families were out enjoying tourism just like us. (I kept thinking, it’s not their fault they are so numerous, that wherever they flock, and like us they go where it’s beautiful and culturally rich, that it becomes a swarm…a sea of humanity…a crush…a horde.)

Blissfully empty alley

David says he doesn’t mind letting me end things. Here: I hope the evolution our tourism inspires is as balanced — at the very least — as David’s qi.

Visit to the Traditional Chinese Medical Clinic

Sick of being sick, coaxed by Betty & Geri, I let my student take me to the campus clinic. First came payment: 50 cents U.S. That’s full price, as I hadn’t brought proper faculty ID. Seeing the doc NORMALLY COSTS A DIME.

The door sign read “Traditional Chinese Medicine.” The doctor was sweetly round, about 65. She felt my wrist pulse a long, long, long time. She looked at my throat with a conventional plastic flashlight, and checked out my tongue. We discussed my bowels (embarassingly with my student translating), even though my problem is a deep cough.

Rx: Forgoing life’s 3 staples: Coffee, chocolate, spicy food. My lungs are imbalanced–too hot. Counterintuitively, I must drink hot water. And 2 or 3 times a day, take my Chinese meds: A ping pong ball that pops open, Pokemon-like, to reveal a gooey bitter black ball of Yangyin Qingfei Wan. Then I drink 2 tiny tubes of coal-ish, herby lanqin. And 10 ml of a sweet syrup, Qiangli pipalu.

A bit curious (what would Dr. Rosenberg say?), I consulted the National Institutes of Medicine’s great PubMed archive, the National Library of Medicine. At least one widely-cited immunology study mentions lanquin–being tested in mouse pneumonia. More conventionally, it’s used for laryngitis, which I have. Yangyin Qingfei Wan, the nasty chews, are being studied in Asia for preventing lung infection after lung cancer radiation. Its made of figwort root, licorice root, white peony root, dwarf lilyturf root, raw rehmannia root, wild mint herb, moutan bark…etc. Roots & barks. In short, it’s for coughing. Which I’m doing. It’s used here for people with tuberculosis.

Finally Qiangli pipalu–papaverine–a respiratory antiviral, has been tested in the U.S. in infants with RSV (a bit too toxic), as well as against HIV. There are lots of publications. It’s a phlegm eliminator effective against bronchitis.

In a word: Excellent.

Mountain Climbing, the National (Secular) Prayer?

Ribbons asking for blessings

Hua Shang (Flower Mountain, about 7,000′), sacred to Taoists, is said to house 72 hermit caves. We climbed it (it’s about 13 hours from Beijing). Taoist holy mountains are pilgrimage spots, something I’ve been trying to understand.

Hermits once lived here (carving stone beds, stone tables), giving cave-temples names like ‘the Cave for Having Audience with the Origin.’

Taoism is connected to mountains. (Taoist alchemists loved mountain herbs — still for sale in baggies in the gift shop). “Buddhist monasteries lie below while Taoists monasteries lie above” is a saying I’ve read. Ancients built altars to calm their local mountain god. Climber-pilgrims bravely approached that power, for its help or forgiveness or enlightenment.

Start up the path on China’s 5 sacred Taoist mountains, & I’ve read that the rock inscription says, “You now enter the first mountain under heaven” : This is the world.

Stairs and railings


Before stairs, the trek up Hua Shan’s knife-edge ridges was dangerous. People climbed (some still do) at night, to watch the sunrise; there are still fatalities from falls.

Caves weren’t just for shelter; they’re the mountain’s “heart” concentrating the earth’s chi energy.

Mid-mountain sits a monastery. Many once held dragon gods made of gold, used in prayers (now in museums). The Summit has a temple as well. For a few lucky immortals, the summit is where the climber-pilgrim attains the Tao.


Ascending is a symbolic ascension. The ancients gave summits names like, “Precipice for Abandonning the Body.” The summit was for offerings, rituals, self-purification, contemplation. Up there, the mountain symbolizes heaven, no longer earth.
(The monks also had fun, as suggested by other place names: the “Cliff for Evading Imperial Commands.” The “Chess Players’ Terrace and Pavillion.”)


I read an account from 1989 of living communities of monks rebuilding Hua Shan’s many holy structures, most of which were burned down during the Cultural Revolution.

There’s still a working abbey at the bottom. But the structures on the trek (simple hotels, not monasteries; noodle shacks not prayer halls — a few temples with souvenir stands alongside) are “just” for the domestic tourist trade. People are having a nice tough climb.

But the sheer numbers of visitor? The devotion (especially of older folks)? The seeming national obsession with climbing the 5 sacred mountains? Something much more deeply rooted is going on here.