My First Acupuncture Demonstration
During the 1970s, tourist visitors to China were very few in number, and almost invariably they were in groups. General tour groups began in the late 70s. Prior to that, there were only a handful of officially invited tourist delegations of professional or special interest groups. The number of locations open to tourists was very small.
These groups had itineraries carefully planned by the relevant authorities, and clearly were intended to show the best possible aspects of China to outsiders. Visits to Peoples’ Communes, schools, and factories always included briefings by the people in charge, invariably full of impressive growth statistics and progress reports.
One aspect of Chinese society frequently showcased in these tour itineraries was medical care. At the People’s Commune level, this mainly revolved around the role of the barefoot doctors and the impressive curtailment of major diseases. In cities, this very often included acupuncture demonstrations.
Western visitors to China in the 1970s frequently were shown acupuncture demonstrations. Those early accounts often included breathless descriptions of medical achievements unheard of in the West, such as major surgery performed while the patient was still conscious and able to converse with the doctors, enabled by the amazing effectiveness of acupuncture as a pain killer.
As a result, acupuncture developed something of a reputation for offering quasi-miraculous, rapid results.
My first visit to China as a member of a tour group, in 1977, included a visit to an urban hospital and a demonstration of acupuncture’s effectiveness.
Members of my tour group and I were curious and a bit apprehensive, because we’d heard stories about how dramatic and graphic these demonstrations could be, with visitors standing close by the operating table.
The hospital was in Shanghai. There were twelve of us in the tour group, all foreigners living in Hong Kong, and all first-time members of a tour group to China. It was summer, and the weather was hot and humid. Our tour had been a non-stop progression of factories, schools, Peoples’ Communes, performance of a revolutionary opera, and sites of historical interest.
The air of suspense was almost as thick as the humidity as we entered the small treatment room in the clinic, where the doctor, nurse and middle-aged female patient awaited us. The suspense was intensified by the lack of a briefing in advance as to what the patient’s ailment was.
For all we knew, we were about to witness open heart surgery, up close and personal. And hot. We were jammed into a small room, twelve curious foreigners plus doctors, nurse, patient, and our tour guide.
The acupuncture treatment began, still without a briefing on what the ailment was, what the expected outcome might be, or any other relevant details.
We were standing, cheek by jowl with the doctor, nurse and patient. Acupuncture needles were inserted and spun.
The treatment proceeded slowly. The room was getting hotter and stuffier.
I began to feel that if this dragged on much longer, I would be in need of acupuncture myself.
The suspense grew, along with the beads of sweat forming on our foreheads. What would be next? Would the treatment yield dramatic results right before our eyes? What, after all, was the patient’s ailment?
Finally, the suspense was too much, and one of our group asked what illness the acupuncture treatment was aiming to treat.
The answer came back, muffled by the nurse’s surgical face mask: “Constipation.”
Somehow our group quickly reached a group concensus without any discussion whatsoever, that we would place our full trust in the efficacy of the treatment on this occasion, and needed witness no more.
We thanked doctor, nurse and patient, and departed the room without delay.