*GVI Plays Witch Doctor*
30 August 2023

Screamin' Jay Hawkins - hero and spiritual mentor

[gvi's notes]

  1. This essay began as several posts made in the Rubicon's "Community Center" board. They have been edited so as to make more sense as a continuous narrative
  2. Between the time I posted these comments and the time I finished this essay, I learned that what I'm doing (steeping herbs in alcohol) is called a "tincture" and that "decoction" refers to steeping in water, as with tea. I'm not going through the trouble of correcting every near-synonym just for pedantic precision's sake
  3. I also learned that single-ingredient tinctures can be ready in as little as 14 days; however, I'm sticking to my original idea of letting mine steep for a year
  4. You'll note that beyond a small photo of my shopping list, I don't list the ingredients for the three preparations I've put up. This is on purpose. In addition to limiting the liability of myself and the Rubicon, I also reckon if you want the recipes that badly, you can do the right thing and compensate their creator by buying the books they come from. You should do this anyway, since everything else in the books tells you how to use these medications (and others) prudently and safely.

If you've ever read Tom Bisio's A Tooth from the Tiger's Mouth, a book on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as relates to "sports injuries," you ran across several recipes for herbal medications of various types, meant for use throughout the several stages of an injury. The author lists a great many more such nostrums which are sold commercially. Some of these seem quite safe and effective; some are of questionable utility, some (Yunnan Baiyao powder and pills) seem to have been rendered obsolete and some just seem like outright snake-oil.

I have a small collection of the "seem quite safe and effective" kind here at Chez GVI along with a few more recommended in a series of videos I've downloaded. I began this undertaking - that of learning Traditional Chinese Medicine at a "Medic/grunt" level - because I liked the balance between martial arts/healing arts. It's half the reason I took the Combat Lifesaver Course in the Army and kept current on it; the other half, it must be admitted, was the easy access to IV fluids, which every G.I. knows are the best hangover remedy bar none.

The recipes Tom Bisio shares are these:

  1. A "trauma liniment" used as soon as possible after injury
  2. A "tendon liniment" that he claims speeds the healing of connective tissue injuries that take a long time to mend up.
  3. A poultice called "San Huang San" or "Three Yellow Powder" that's related to the first recipe - it's meant to be mixed with a medium (Bisio suggests Vaseline or egg-white), applied to a dressing and placed over the injury.
  4. An herbal pill meant to complement the "trauma liniment."

Like a lot of my projects, this one languished until I had a good reason to revisit it. This "good reason" was a nasty injury my elbow sustained in making the stand for my post drill (a hand-crank drill press) back in May. I've been doing the TCM therapy I've learned along the way, and because I knew I wouldn't have any of the homemade stuff ready in time, I've been using the "seems safe and effective" commercial patent preparations. Together, acupressure/massage and liniments work well at relieving pain and restoring function, but not too well; that is to say, they don't work so well that you forget you have an injury that needs rest and care.

This weekend was set aside as the time for me to get everything lined up to start making the stuff in the book. The only thing I had was two 1-gallon jugs and some vodka left over from making vanilla extract - not nearly enough. The vodka is for the liniments; they're made by steeping the herbs in alcohol for a long time (a year or more), shaking it frequently to extract as much out of the herbs as possible.

I have no intention of making the herbal pill for several reasons:

The "Three Yellow Powder" just needs to have its various components pulverized and mixed. A coffee grinder will do.

This past weekend, I went to the likka-sto' and bought four 1.75-litre bottles of cheap vodka - more alcohol than I've ever bought at one time. None of this stuff is going to be drunk, merely used in my witch-doctor projects. Each recipe makes a gallon, which amounts to a lifetime supply.

The following day, I went to a Chinatown herbalist with a shopping list I painstakingly wrote in Chinese and English. I might have made a friend by this gesture - it appeared to have been warmly received, even if I have the penmanship of an 8-year old. While my order was being filled I went shopping at a nearby grocery store - what the heck, I needed tea and oyster sauce anyway.

After a grueling drive home (next time I'm taking the train), I set about making as much of the stuff as I was able. The "San Huang San" or "Three Yellow Powder" was the first - throw everything in my coffee grinder and pulverize it.

This is after I ground it up. It's in a surplus Bundeswehr Fettbusch "Butter dish." The little spoon came from a jar of Chinese chili sauce. The notes are my shopping list.

Starting to fill the jug for the "trauma liniment." The recipe calls for stuff like Myrrh and Frankincense; and while I don't automatically know what those things look like, I can attest that there were little sticky resinous bits in the folded-up packet I received. Truly, I don't know what I expected the contents of the packets to look like. What it looks like is what would happen if I cleaned my gutters and put the contents in the dehydrator. It's of course not that. I take my herbalist acquaintance at his word that my order was faithfully filled. His store does a very brisk business, with a principal clientele of Chinatown residents, and his shop has been there as long as I can remember. The Chinese way of living and thinking may be peculiar, but it's no more stupid, credulous or superstitious than our own. A charlatan is unlikely to last as long as this guy has been in business.

While I had a second jug for the "tendon liniment," I didn't have a cap. So until some rubber stoppers show up in a couple days, further work is on hold. Photos will be added to this post once I get to that point.

One of the members who favored my project with active interest asked the following: "Do we have to wait a year? Very interested in postmed report..."

The short answer is "yes-and-no."

The useful answer is as follows:

You have to wait a year until the decoctions are fully ready. Think of it as an exercise in mindfulness and delayed gratification.

We read in "A Tooth from the Tiger's Mouth" that liniments made by steeping herbs in vodka can be used as little as six weeks after they're put up; on the other hand, I don't need to use them so soon, for I have commercial preparations which are equivalent, and will tide me over until my "witch-doctor potions" are ready.

"Regular" and "Fast-Acting"

In the back is the one-of-two decoctions I've put up thus far. In front are the things I'm using right now, and I've already reported on their salutary effects above.

The one on the left (Zheng Gu Shui or "Bone-Setting Liquid") is the closest analogue to what's in the jug - a "cooling-and-moving" preparation to be used in the first two days of a non-bleeding injury like a bruise or sprain.

The two on the right (the one with the old guy's face on it is called Dit Da Jow or "Hit-Fall Wine" and the one on the right is Hak Kwai or "Black Ghost Oil") are for recovery after initial swelling has subsided. They are considered "warming-and-tonifying" agents in Traditional Chinese Medicine's way of thinking. I'm using Black Ghost Oil on my banged-up elbow.

All are mild analgesics, but as I said, they're not super-pain-killers. They don't let you forget your boo-boo exists, and this is important.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is quite different from Western biomedicine (borrowing the jargon from Ted Kaptchuk's The Web That Has No Weaver), and it contemplates bodily systems and functions MUCH differently from its Western counterpart. Doesn't make it better or worse, just different. There are things Western medicine does much better than TCM. There are things TCM does better. The two modes are somewhat - but not entirely - complementary.

It's important to remember that these patent preparations (and those I'm making) are only one facet of a larger system of treatment. It's the same thing as you going to the quacks to get a nasty gash stitched up; it ain't just the stitches, it's the antiseptic, the antibiotics, the pain meds, the therapy afterward (if necessary) et cetera. Chinese medicine just goes about it with different premises.

Treating my elbow also includes herbal supplements (which I'm actively avoiding), changes in diet (which I'm doing), acupressure and targeted exercises (which I'm also doing and which are discussed at length in "Tooth from the Tiger's Mouth" and A Pearl From The Dragon's Neck from the same author). The Black Ghost Oil and the "tendon liniment" I'll be putting up tomorrow is only a single part of it. I'm avoiding the herbal supplements because of my heart condition, accepting that recovery will be slower because of their absence in the regimen.

All put together, they work as well as anything in Western Medicine in not merely repairing damage (and preventing further damage), but also in restoring function. For my part, my elbow is improving at a pace I'd expect. I suffered a quite memorable similar injury to the other elbow about 17 years ago and it took a year to heal up, whereas I can tell this injury will only be a "problem" for another month or so - four or five months total.

Meanwhile, I have made up a small kit for my students, based on what I reasonably assess to be the Worst-Case Scenario for a Tai-Chi-Taught-As-A-Martial-Art class. This Worst-Case is "two over-eager students botching each other up" and getting nasty sprains or bruises, with maybe a small "owie-boo-boo" I need to cover over. To this end, I've put up the following:

The box started its career as a container for cookies (shown - they're called "Sun Cakes" and they're yummy)

Inside is only enough to treat two bad sprains or bruises Right-Freakin'-Now, with extra containers to send people home to self-treat over the next two days until the swelling goes down.

As I said, the "Three Yellow Powder" was ready as soon as all its components were pulverized and mixed. The Vaseline is to be used as a "medium" to make a poultice with the powder. Egg-white can also be used, but like most such places we don't keep egg-white around. The test tube has enough to treat two such injuries, and the small disk-shaped containers have enough for one person for two days' worth of treatment. The small vials with the rubber stoppers are for "trauma liniment" of either the store-bought kind or my own concoction when it's ready. The cylindrical canister seen in the box holds a small bottle with a preparation identical in effect to the Zheng Gu Shui, but it fits nicely in the box and won't leak.

The box doesn't contain longer-term therapeutics, because

The Big Blue Truck delivered the rubber stoppers and other impedimenta today; so before my class I put up the second of the two liniments I'd set out to make:

This looks similar to the first jug but it's not the same stuff

The decoction prepared; after this photo was taken, I put tape around & over both stoppers

And now...we wait

You'll notice that it's only been a couple days since I made the first liniment and already changes are occurring. It's darker and more turbid, there are fewer of the little seed-nut-thingies floating around at the top, and many of the ingredients appear either to have sunk to the bottom or dissolved altogether. I expect much the same with the latest preparation. I make no predictions as to what color these things will ultimately end up being; not that it makes much difference.

There may yet come a day when I can walk out to some county park or overgrown back-lot and gather up whatever I need, knowing domestic plants from Asian, and their similarities or differences. Then again, that's a whole separate kettle of fish and while I'm a decent cook & can follow directions well, botany on its own has never been an interest of mine. At any rate, I have the recipes I need to make a range of "medicines," the experience of having done so, as well as that of using things similar to them. Buy the books I recommend, study them and apply them (and maybe go make friends with a Chinese herbalist), and you'll have all this too!


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