Summer Care for Winter Diseases

The practice of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is surprisingly broad from daily diet, work and rest habits, to acupuncture and cupping. Another lesser known TCM treatment is sanfu tie. 

Respiratory problems are widespread in Dongguan—a polluted area for decades—and people believe sanfu tie is an effective way to deal with it without taking medication or having an operation. Sanfu tie is a TCM medicated paste that is applied on various acupuncture points on the back, belly and neck to treat and prevent certain chronic illnesses.

An important principle behind sanfu tie is dōng bìng xià zhì (winter disease, summer care), meaning the diseases that appear in winter should be treated during summer. Since sanfu is the hottest time on the Chinese calendar, it is considered the best time for treating illnesses.

Since 2010, I have suffered rhinitis every autumn and winter. Whenever I feel cold—or for no reason at all—I experience a stuffy or running nose. Last year I had enough and decided to try this mythical cure with my friend, who only had minor digestion problems.

We went to Dongguan’s most prestigious hospital—Dongguan Hospital of TCM—which is famous for its sanfu tie. I had little knowledge of how it looked or felt. My reason for going was half serious and half experimental. There are six sessions in total, and it was recommended to take all of them to get the maximum benefits. It was also okay to take only a few of them.

Browsing a flyer distributed by the hospital, sanfu tie is a cure-all for the digestive system, pain, gynecology diseases and pediatric diseases. The people who go for sanfu tie range from a year old to 80 years old. According to an article published by news.timedg.com, over 8,300 people had this treatment in 2018 at the Dongguan Hospital of TCM.

We were lucky to avoid the congested morning session at the hospital, with lobby crammed with patients who would wait an hour for treatment. The afternoon session was on the third floor of another building, and only a handful of people were ahead of us.

I watched a nurse squeeze soft brown paste of the sanfu tie mixture onto plasters, and a doctor applied the plasters to the patients.

As a typical Chinese hospital, there was little privacy among patients, even the treatment involved lifting half of your shirt. A 7-year-old boy in front of us became nervous when his time came. He kept saying hěn là (very spicy) and was unwilling to cooperate.

Finally, it was our turn. After examining my prescription, the doctor quickly stuck at least 10 pastes on my back, belly and neck. It felt cool when they touched my skin, but soon a mild burning sensation hit me from various points—especially the one on the back of my neck. I finally knew what the boy meant. We were told to keep them on for one hour before tearing them off. As time passed, the unpleasant feeling lessened.

The results were hard to tell. After five sessions of sanfu tie from last summer, I would say that my nose was better in the winter, though probably because it was not particularly cold.