New example shows work still needed to dispel old taboos

The China Post News Staff

In an age when most people in developed countries own a smartphone and workers are worried of being made redundant by artificial intelligence, it is easy to forget how provincial human society can sometimes be. But the anti-elitist trend in the post-truth age has shown that people do not necessarily see science or rationality as the standard for decision making.

Thanks to scientific and societal advancement, medical treatment has moved beyond superstitious religious bargaining, embracing instead the rigors of scientific inquiry. But many still retain immense faith in religious and superstitious remedies.

Sometimes the popularity of remedies are not even created by centuries-long traditions — as people would like to believe — but by the hypes and trends of the time.

In a recent example, the BBC reported that sales of traditional Chinese herbal medicine ejiao (阿膠), or donkey-hide gelatin, had surged because it was featured in “Empresses in the Palace” (後宮甄嬛傳), a popular Chinese-language period melodrama. The sudden high demand for ejiao has reportedly led to a drop in the donkey population in China, and some Chinese businesses are importing hides of the animal illegally from Africa, creating an ecological crisis. One can argue about the medical benefits of the herb, but it is difficult to argue for the rationality of people suddenly wanting to get it just because they saw it on TV. You don’t sign up for open-heart surgery just because you saw it in an episode of “ER.”

In some Eastern cultures, religion, culture and tradition are often just different terms for the same thing. While such a preservation of ancient customs and traditions is admirable, when it comes to mental health and physical wellbeing, a lifestyle heavily influenced by religious traditions and values arguably does more harm than good. For example, the first idea a lot of Taiwanese parents have when their newborn baby won’t stop crying, is to bring the child to a Taoist temple for a “soul recovery” ceremony (收驚). This ritual is believed to help retrieve part of the scattered soul of a child, which tradition says leaves the body after a person endures a frightful experience. The ritual often concludes with parents feeding their babies water that includes burnt spell papers. But a crying baby is often the sign of treatable medical discomfort such as a high fever or stomach flu. Beyond denying the proper treatment of physical illnesses, the archaic faith in social etiquette and hierarchy fostered by religious beliefs has also contributed to the slow development of behavioral science, emotional therapy, psychology and psychiatry in Taiwan.