With doctors urging amputation to stop the
gangrene spreading upwards from his toes, Liu Guorong was
skeptical when a friend said bee venom might save his foot.
"I was doubting this place," the 58-year-old diabetes sufferer
said in a raspy voice during a visit to the Xizhihe Traditional
Medicine Hospital on the outskirts of Beijing.
"When I got here, I had no idea what I was doing and what
the bee sting treatment was all about."
As Liu found out, it was painful.
Bees were placed on his foot and provoked to sting him in
a bid to rejuvenate the blackened, rotting flesh by flooding
it with a rush of protein-rich blood.
A folk remedy for treating arthritis, back pain and rheumatism
for 3,000 years in China, practitioners say that such pinpointed
stings can repair damaged cells, stave off bacteria and ease
Doctors at Xizhihe hospital believe they can even cure liver
ailments, diabetes and cancers.
They admit, however, that they do not really know how it
"Our knowledge has increased over the years," said Xu Xiaowang,
Xizhihe hospital director.
"But there are still large areas that are unknown to us all...
There are too many unanswered questions," Xu said.
Western-trained doctors dismiss the treatment as unscientific
"It's alternative medicine and has no basis in western medical
science... I would doubt its efficacy," Professor Christopher
Lam, a chemical pathologist at the Chinese University in Hong
"People allergic to bee stings can develop hypersensitivity
reactions like a sudden drop in blood pressure, swelling of
the airways, cold sweats... it may be life threatening," Lam
Hazy science notwithstanding, at 20 yuan (about $2.50)
a sting, the treatment offers a cheap alternative to mainstream
"Doctors at other hospitals were telling me that they needed
to cut my foot off," Liu said. "I'd spent loads of money."
Liu has been to Xizhihe several times to get stung and is
now on a course of orally-taken bee venom medication. He now
expects to keep his foot.
"The flesh is growing back ... I'm feeling better," Liu said.
Bee venom is just one of an exhaustive catalog of ancient
folk remedies involving bugs, herbs, animal parts and massage
that make up traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
Incorporating elements of mysticism and based on a philosophy
developed several thousand years ago, TCM is regarded as an
alternative medicine in the West, but in China it remains
a central plank of modern health care.
About 3,000 private clinics provided TCM treatments to more
than 230 million people in 2005. Health officials say it generated
95 billion yuan that year -- more than a quarter of the medical
industry's total income -- and revenues have grown an average
20 percent a year over the past decade.
The government, sensing an export-driven cash cow, plowed
740 million yuan into research and development last year in
a bid to bolster TCM's scientific credibility and standing
in Western markets where alternative remedies are increasingly
And yet, domestically, TCM is in free-fall.
Once the only player in the market, economic reforms have
ushered in foreign drugs and foreign-trained doctors, forcing
a showdown between modern Western practices and ancient Eastern
Between 2000-2004, TCM's share of prescription drug income
declined by nearly a quarter, state media reported.
Increasingly spurned by China's time-poor youth, TCM is
also under siege from academics who deem it unscientific and
of dubious medical benefit.
Zhang Gongyao, a scientist at Central South University in
Changsha, capital of China's central Hunan province, created
a media storm in October after he posted an essay on his personal
blog urging the government to strike TCM from the official
Western medicine, however, let alone basic health care,
is a luxury many of the country's 1.3 billion people cannot
Fees at state-run hospitals, robbed of funding after deregulation
in the 1990s, have soared in recent years, while individual
spending on health care nearly doubled from 1978 to 2002,
according to health ministry statistics.
Beijing has pledged to spend more on basic health services,
but expensive public health care ensures a steady stream of
customers to small, private clinics like Xizhihe -- where
relief may be as cheap as a few beestings.
Lu Jiumei, a middle-aged woman with rheumatism, made the
three-hour journey to Xizhihe from her home-town in Hebei
province to get bee venom therapy.
"I don't think this could be harmful to the body in terms
of side effects. I have been treated a few times now," she
She grimaced as an angry bee deposited its salutary sting
into her leg. But a few moments later, a smile broke out on
"My pain is relieved a lot and it's going away," she said,
patting a freshly swollen mound on her thigh.