Beyond their textural beauty, the characters written on the faces of the cabinet drawers, oddly, held little interest for me. Distributed on the four cardinal directions, each set of characters describes a medicine found in one of the four compartments of that drawer. Written as they are in traditional characters, they are difficult to read for most contemporary Mainland Chinese who use the simplified characters introduced post-Liberation in the drive to increase literacy. Only one visitor to my studio, an artist who was raised in a household of practitioners of TCM, knew anything of the names & usages of the medicines: one drawer she recognized as containing medicines for the regulation of menstrual patterns, another for gastro-intestinal disruptions.
The traditional manner of prescribing the medicines is in their natural form as roots, plant parts, the occasionally animal bit or substance (bear bile being a particularly worrisome one, due to the method of extraction.) The prescribed assortment of 10 or so items is then boiled together in great quantities of water into a "decoction" to be imbibed several times a day. The smell of these brewing decoctions is vey familiar now as it often wafts out of my neighbors kitchens as I walk down the lane; it's very particular, a kin to the smell/taste of blackstrap molasses if you hate it, more bitter than that if you don't mind it.
In the modern version, boxed as above, TCM comes, in pre-packaged powders, kind of like Emergen-C without the fizz. You mix the powder into a glass of warm water, throw it back & quickly follow that with a chaser of anything strong enough to get the acrid aftertaste off your tongue.
In the Cabinet, there are 27 tins of medicines; this one holds dried bitter orange & (maybe) lychee seeds. For a curious list of TCMs, including human & animal parts, click here, or here for a fantastic gallery of herbs & cicadas & their uses, and here for TCM student Julie Kesti's post on "medicinal lizards."
There are other mysterious remedies to be had in SH... green oil for external use on aches & pains, bug bites & headache (though the smell just drills my headache in deeper)... Or the substance recommended to me by the local pharmacy when I was in search of a heating plaster for backache: the squirt bottle label features an elk-like creature; the liquid within, extracted from said animal, turns out to be illegal in the US...except, after yet further investigation, it turns out that the version I was sold is "synthetic." Thereafter, known at our house as "NearDeer." We suspect it's steroidal as the label prohibits its use by athletes but I gotta tell ya, if you've got muscle pain, nothing kicks it like NearDeer.
One of the operating principles behind TCM is a system of 12 meridian networks that run through the body; illness occurs when the flow of energy through these networks is disrupted. Acupuncture can restore the flow; acupuncture needles are applied at points where the meridians come close to the surface of the body & are mapped as in the hand model above. It's way complicated: see the Wiki explanation here or check out Julie Kesti's posts from her summer studies at the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese medicine and especially her TCM resources page.
In a nod to the meridian idea, I arranged all the tins of medicines in the cabinet on an internal meridian: they can be found in the 3rd box of the each of the drawers along the outside perimeter of the cabinet, meaning the drawers in the top & bottom rows - row 1 & 8 - and in the left & right columns - every
#. 1 & #.8 position. (Click here for the map of the cabinet.) Sometimes things worked out differently - a disruption of the qi/energy - so 4 tins got displaced: 1.3's tin went down to 3.3, 1.5 to 2.5, 8.3 to 7.3 & 5.1, mysteriously, just plain disappeared. In x-ray vision, the tins (almost) line up to form a rectangle on the interior of the cabinet.
In my mind, it's a kind of an invisible life force: one of those things you do as an artist that no one else can see and has no grand significance but you do it anyway because somehow it gives order and meaning to what you are making.