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每日跟讀#517: Taiwan’s traditional medicine stores on life support

全台傳統中藥房 面臨生存危機

· 每日跟讀單元 Daily English
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每日跟讀#517: Taiwan’s traditional medicine stores on life support

Traditional medicine store owner Gu Cheng-pu knows her dispensary can only stay open as long as her ailing father-in-law lives, their careers hostage to a quirk in Taiwanese law that is killing off the industry. At the back of her shop in New Taipei City, Gu tips a plate of freshly cut Chinese liquorice roots into a wok of boiling honey, the first step in preparing one of her many traditional remedies.


Shops like hers are dying out, however — with some 200 closing their doors every year — even though traditional medicine remains wildly popular in Taiwan.


Authorities have not issued any new licenses since 1998, to better regulate the largely artisanal industry and bring traditional remedies into the purview of the professional medical community. Those licenses that exist cannot be passed down to younger generations.


Things did not turn out as planned. The lower pay and profits struggled to attract young doctors and pharmacists while patients kept going to the mom-and-pop dispensaries they trusted.


Gu’s father-in-law is the license owner but he recently suffered a stroke and she now fears the worst. The average age of a traditional medicine store license holder is now 61 while the number of remaining stores has halved in the last 20 years to just 7,900.



According to the Compendium of Materia Medica, the sixteenth-century text that is the lodestar for traditional practitioners, there are more than 1,500 different kinds of herbs used in Chinese medicine. The average store might stock between 200 and 500 herbs, roots, animal parts and minerals — 355 of which are classified as medicine in Taiwan.


Lee Chia-ling, 42, has worked alongside her father in their family shop for more than 10 years, learning remedies from him.


“It was very hard work in the beginning,” she said. “You need to get your hands dirty. Sorting, washing, chopping and slicing, lots of work goes into processing raw herbs and roots ready for use,” she said.


Her father Lee Ching-chang, 69, said it takes three to five years to learn to distinguish the basic ingredients and how they react with each other.


“This is very much a profession where experience counts,” said the older Lee, who entered the trade when he was 15 years old. “If the government will not issue any new licenses then the second generation cannot carry on with the shop,” he lamented. “If this situation continues,” Gu warned, “there won’t be any Chinese herbal stores left in Taiwan.”


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