My childhood summers in Beijing were marked without fail by scores of mosquito bites, despite the bug sprays and floral water my mother routinely vaporized me with. Playing for hours in tall grass under a scorching heat resulted in my limbs developing a steady topography of itchy pink spots. To be honest, there was some gross satisfaction to hosting these little bumps, and I wasn’t the only one who felt that way: my playmates and I regularly congregated in the park outside our preschool with our legs stretched out, counting to see who had the most of these proudly earned battle scars.
But I always felt less proud once I got home hours later, where my mother would scold me as I tried to scratch away the itchiness. She would retrieve a tiny bottle from her purse or the bathroom counter and hold it between her thumb and index finger, dabbing herbal oil out and onto the mosquito bites. Soon enough, the irritation on my skin would be replaced by a cold and minty relief.
The green oil in question is called Feng You Jing (风油精), and its principal activating ingredients include eugenol, methyl salicylate, eucalyptus oil, and menthol. These ingredients can all be broadly associated with health benefits; for instance, menthol is an antipruritic constituent that aromatically helps with insect-repelling and combating heat strokes, and eucalyptus oil helps fight respiratory diseases. Although a quick Google search makes it seem like its benefits are endless, Feng You Jing is most commonly used in China to help treat or alleviate headaches, heat strokes, muscle pain, nausea, and a sore throat. I have distinct memories of my mother smelling it to rid herself of nausea on airplanes and during car rides. Nowadays, I sometimes use its aroma to help me stay awake in class.
Many Asian countries have their own version of the oil, such as the popular TIGER BALM products in Thailand and Vietnam that have attracted a bigger Western market. But the origins of these “cure-all” solutions are debated. Several theories exist, with some arguing that the first formula was invented by a Burmese-Chinese herbalist called Hu Ziqin, and others affirming that it originated in Singapore. Regardless of its origins, it’s undeniable that the Chinese have adopted Feng You Jing as their own for generations.
As it now coexists with modern scientific medicine, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) often acts as a complementary and effective way to maintain one’s health in Western countries. For instance, a study published by Wolters Kluwer Health has shown that combining TCM treatments with Western medicine for the treatment of secondary tuberculosis is better than using Western medicine alone, and is even conducive to reducing the incidence of adverse reactions.
The Indigenous Asian practice of traditional medicine based on theories, beliefs, and experiences was developed through thousands of years of empirical refinement. From what we know, China is the Asian country with the longest history of traditional medicine. Although other countries like Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and Vietnam have their own distinct cultures of traditional medicine, the underlying philosophy and principles behind those seem to have stemmed from TCM. To this day, relying largely on herbal and natural ingredients is still a widespread practice in Asia: according to statistics from 2012, 200 million people in China still treat their health problems with TCM, 60–70% of allopathic doctors in Japan prescribe herbal medicines for their patients, and 69% of the Korean population has tried traditional Korean medicine.
Although the modernization of TCM implicates the inclusion of Western practices, TCM on its own still remains hugely popular; in fact, as of 2015, TCM-related clinical services represent about 18% of total healthcare provisions in the country. China alone has been conducting more research on how to fruitfully combine Western and TCM since 2007 as a means to modernize national healthcare. While my own family has never fully relied on herbal medicine, we’ve often incorporated it into our use of modern medicine with freshly bought legumes and fruits from the marketplace. To this day, natural ingredients are for us the primary way to go for preventive measures. When we feel a cold coming, concocting our own recipes is the instinct that precedes running to our medical cabinet for pharmaceutical products.
In the case of Feng You Jing, I believe that the subjective, personal experience of it is what makes it most effective to me. The value I attach to it is not only that of a potential remedy, but of a memory; if there was to be an inventory of the comforting smells that outlined my formative years, Feng You Jing would stand at the forefront of the shelf. To this day, removing the tiny flask’s cap and filling my nostrils with its familiar scent brings me moral support the way an amulet would. I’m probably not alone in feeling that my bias in its favor makes me feel like I don’t need modern chemically-filled painkillers in times of slight discomfort. Nowadays, I carry around Feng You Jing everywhere I go the way my mother used to, and enjoy the same kind of reassurance from it as I did when I was just a messy kid with too many mosquito bites.
By Irène Schrader
Illustration by Julia Tabor