The Chinese Half-Nobel Prize winner

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Chinese Nobel Prize

One of my main arguments when I talk about the educational system in China is the absence of any remarkable Chinese national Nobel laureate. Of course we have Mo Yan’s Literature prize, which raised some controversy, and Liu Xiaobo’s Peace prize which he could not receive because he is imprisoned for the very reasons that lead him to win it. But one would expect something more from a big emerging superpower that endlessly boasts about its five thousand years of continuous civilization. Now Tu Youyou has been awarded (half of) the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine, so people are wondering, does this proof that China is really an emerging superpower with real educational reforms? Or that state sponsored science, especially by a Communist state, can lead to real groundbreaking discoveries? How about Traditional Chinese Medicine? The answer to these questions is absolutely no.

Let´s take a look at the story: In 1967 Mao Zedong set a secret operation called “Project 5-23” in order to find a cure for malaria, which was killing many North Vietnamese –at the time at war with the U.S.– and of course many Chinese soldiers who got infected when helping them. The team, which Tu Youyou led in 1969, screened 2.000 traditional Chinese herbs and animal-based remedies until they finally found one: the sweet wormwood or Artemisia annua. Tu claimed that she found the answer in an ancient text almost 1,700 years old, Ge Hong’s Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergency Treatments (Zhou houbei ji fang 肘後備急方), where a herb called qinghao was used to treat malaria.

Now if you have a critical mind, you may have realize that there is the problem with this report: Tu found the remedy either after screening 2,000 traditional Chinese herbs, or when she read about it in Ge Hong’s book. It is one or the other, but it cannot be both. If it was state sponsored science, then the discovery was pure chance: they got a bunch of herbs, tested them, and if one of them was effective, then they would hit the jackpot. Just think of one million people trying to assemble a smart phone by trial and error, each one in a different way –someone will eventually get it right. This is basically what Communism (and any other dictatorship) does: they put all the “national energies” (i.e., brainwashed human beings) at the service of the interests of the State, so they can produce immediate goods –at a very high human cost.

So, how about the second claim? Tu Youyou found this sentence in Ge Hong’s book:

 

青蒿一握,以水二升漬,絞取汁,盡服之。

A handful of qinghao immersed with two liters of water, wring out the juice and drink it all.

 

This appears in the sixteenth chapter of Ge Hong’s Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergency Treatments, which is entitled “Malaria prescriptions for treatment of cold fever” (治寒熱諸瘧方), and it is one among many totally useless prescriptions (about twenty). There is, however, something that has been lost in translation. Let me show you.

The drug extracted from the Artemisia annua is called Artemisinin, qinghaosu in modern Chinese, but because it is a synthetic derivative, it was obviously not used in antiquity but created in modern laboratories. You would suppose that the plant employed to extract the qinghaosu (su meaning “essence”) is the qinghao plant mentioned by Ge Hong, but, surprise, it is not! The plant the scientist discovered could be used to treat malaria, the Artemisia annua, is called huanghuahao (黄花蒿) in Chinese and it is not mentioned by Ge Hong.

So what Tu Youyou and her team did, was to name the discovered substance after Ge Hong’s plant and, then, claim that it was known in antiquity. Ge Hong’s qinghao is another plant from the same family, Artemisia carvifolia, which cannot be used to synthesize the modern qinghaosu. It is, for sure, a fortunate coincidence that only one among twenty recipes for malaria was part of the family of the same plant that contained a substance that, once synthesized –but not prepared as a recipe–, could help treating malaria. It gets even more “chancy” if you know that the actual word for malaria in classical Chinese, nüè, referred in fact to a wide range of fever-related diseases caused by miasmic vapors (xieqi 邪氣).

By the way, they made this discovery during the Cultural Revolution, so this Nobel Prize says nothing about the current state of Chinese education or science.

 

Addenda: Ge Hong’s qinghao plant was in fact used more than two thousand years ago to treat female hemorrhoids.

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