What is your impression on traditional Chinese medicine? What do you think about it? Li Shizhen, born in 1518 in the Ming Dynasty, wrote the Bencao gangmu, which includes the description of 1,094 different herbs. From the past to the present, Traditional Chinese medicine(TCM) plays an important role in Chinese people’s life and has a far-reaching impact around the world. Although Western medicine is more commonly adopted in the clinical treatment of a disease, many Chinese people retain their habits of using TCM for minor illnesses and body conditioning, which are passed down from generation to generation. TCM is popularly used in many ways, such as skin care products, and extracting TCM becomes a necessary part of the process.
However, TCM remains a contentious subject, as its objectors claim that it has no scientific basis and is outdated. For many people, it’s difficult to take TCM seriously, because it does not produce instant results and fast remedies as western medicine. Nevertheless, TCM is popularly used in health supplements and skincare products now. Skincare brands including Herbivore, Wthn, 001 Skincare London draw inspiration from TCM and develop popular skincare products containing traditional herbal ingredients.
Some of the brands market their products by highlighting the effectiveness of TCM, such as 001 Skincare London. “blending Asian apothecary principles with modern biochemistry” is the main brand message as presented on the website page. The products of 001 are researched and manufactured in London, where they use their extraction skills to extract and produce skincare items. The founder Ada Ooi, is also an acialist-acupuncturist. She is hugely influenced by her grandpa who used to own a CTM pharmacy in Macau, which triggered her interest in combining CTM with western extraction skills. Her products widely use ginseng, goji berry, ginkgo, and licorice root as ingredients.
Herbivore, a popular skincare brand, advertised its products with the concept of “natural ingredients”. However, it’s hard to find clues of the appearance of TCM in the brand’s marketing materials, even though the Herbivore products contain goji berry and red raspberry seed camellia extract. Why do many skincare brands prefer to advertise their products using the word “nature”, instead of TCM?
There is a huge difference between simple plants and TCM herbs. Each of the TCM herbs has its function and a particular application, even though some of them might have a similar medical effect. A lack of TCM knowledge could cause unwanted or even dangerous effects: putting herbs that do not agree with each other together, or extracting ingredients in the wrong way. Documented in Bencao gangmu, extracting TCM requires specific procedures. Most western skincare brands have their special extraction skills, which they are proud of and advertise for. A new question follows: why China, as an important origin of the exported raw herbal materials, falls short in creating homegrown brands and products that extract from the native herbs?
According to the Chinese government, because of the limited scale of factories and domestic market, the operating scale is mostly above 10 million dollars. The limited extraction skill and industry scale lead to the problem of exporting raw materials with a limited price. In 2017, the data shows that the export value of ginseng is 8 times more than the import value, but the export price is 14.33% of the import price. Ginseng from Korea costs 200 million USD on export price, and the price is 10 times the price of ginseng in China. In the value of exported Korean ginseng, half of it is imported from the Paektu mountain in China.
In Korea, ginseng is commonly used in daily life: coffee, soup, candy, and meals. KT&G, as the biggest company in Korea, managed and supported by the Korean government, owning 1.6 million investment, 150 professional researchers, focuses on ginseng product development. China owns a huge amount of export value but compared to other countries, such as Korea, lack of ginseng product development and extraction skill set up an obstacle.
Korean Ginseng products
Nobel Prize winner Tu Youyou successfully extracted artemisinin after years of studying traditional Chinese herbs. Her contribution not only proves the importance of TCM but also changes millions of people’s lives. With the growth of the internet in China, local factories, companies, and farms started to connect more seamlessly, forming a digital production line. More companies focusing on TCM extraction are founded, as investment in related projects capss 1.51 million RMB. Modernizing TCM has become an industrial trend in China, mobilizing rural workers and boosting the service industry . Most significantly, it advances the pharmaceutical chain in China.