A firsthand look at traditional Chinese medicine in Thailand

During a nine-day winter break trip, students in Jianghong Liu’s Penn Global seminar experienced and learned about practices like tea therapy, cupping, Qi Gong, and more.

chinese tea workshop
At a tea therapy workshop, one of many stops for students on the Penn Global trip led by the School of Nursing’s Jianghong Liu, participants had the chance to make and taste their own tea combinations. Each tea has different healing properties, from reducing stress to boosting energy. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Global)

For anyone who’s ever had a sore throat, hot tea offers a welcome reprieve. But as Penn third year Kevin Huang learned recently on a Penn Global seminar trip to Thailand, not all teas are created equally. 

“Teas have different herbal properties, so they can be hot or cold, and they have different flavor profiles, like pungent, sour, sweet, salty, bitter,” explains Huang, a cell and molecular biology major from Bellmawr, New Jersey. “Each affects your body differently. Some can relieve cough; some are meant to help lower cholesterol. There are teas that address fatigue or insomnia and some for relieving stress.” 

gold chinese decor
On the trip, the students had the opportunity to explore some the famous sites in and around Bangkok. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Global)

At this particular tea therapy workshop, Huang tried a varietal meant to boost energy. Fourth year School of Nursing student Linda Jiang tasted one that reduces stress and anxiety, surrounded by 18 other Penn students, who created and sipped herbal elixirs of their own. The session was one of many during a trip that capped off the Exploring Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) course taught by Penn Nursing’s Jianghong Liu and supported by the China Education Initiative, a new Penn Global program focused on the emerging, complex issues that shape China and the world. 

On campus this past semester, the class delved into complementary and alternative medicine techniques like acupuncture and cupping, Gua Sha (skin scraping) and Qi Gong (movements to optimize the body’s energy flow). Then for nine days in late December and early January, the students learned about and experienced these practices at partner institution Huachiew Chalermprakiet University and other spots in Thailand.

Liu says seeing these practices firsthand can put them in a new light for her students. “I developed this class because I always believe it’s important to take a holistic approach to healing,” says Liu, the Marjorie O. Rendell Endowed Professor in Healthy Transitions. “That’s what traditional Chinese medicine believes. It corrects imbalances in the body, which then stabilizes the balance of Yin and Yang.”

chinese class group
Before this year, the class taught by Liu (center, in red) visited China. The pandemic caused the pivot to Thailand, where Liu brought 20 students—the largest group she’s ever taken—to experience Traditional Chinese Medicine practices like Qi Gong, taught by Qi Gong Master Yin Quan (center, in white). (Image: Courtesy of Penn Global)

From China to Thailand

Before this year, Liu’s global seminar traveled to China, initially as part of a course on environmental exposures. “During those trips, I used to take students to a traditional Chinese medicine hospital for a half-day tour and I was amazed at their excitement,” she says. “That made me feel like yes, environmental exposure as a subject is important, but also, China has more to offer.” She created the TCM course and partnered with Longhua Hospital and Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine for the immersive experience abroad. 

Her class was slated to return to China this year until pandemic restrictions halted those plans. Liu and Penn Global pivoted, essentially replicating the itinerary planned for Shanghai in and around Bangkok instead, adding a traditional Thai medicine component. Some 40 undergraduates applied to join the class, which normally enrolls 15. This year Liu took 20, the largest group ever.

Each student came with a different vantage point and a range of motivations. Huang, who plans to pursue an MD and a Ph.D., had never traveled aboard before. This course and the Thailand trip offered a chance for him to see a new place and learn more about his family’s culture. Jiang, who identifies as Chinese American, also grew up around TCM but says she never fully understood it, something she took the class to rectify. 

For fourth-year Ryan Afreen, a neuroscience major from New York City who will attend medical school in the fall, grasping TCM practices meant the opportunity to better equip her future self for treating patients of all backgrounds. “I’ve noticed that medicine is very colonized,” she says. “I wanted to deviate away from Western medicine, to explore what makes Eastern medicine so popular.” 

Not just watching, but doing

Though the students had some time to explore Thailand—even celebrating New Year’s Eve the day they arrived—and had the opportunity to meet Penn alumni at a dinner arranged by the Development Office, the bulk of their hours were dedicated to learning about and testing out TCM like cupping and Qi Gong. 

chinese cupping practices
Cupping, one of the oldest traditional Chinese medicine practices, involves warming up cups that get suctioned to the body, to stimulate blood flow and healing. It can be used for a variety of diseases from neurological conditions to pain reduction. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Global)

Cupping, one of the oldest such practices, involves warming up cups that get suctioned to the body, to stimulate blood flow and healing. “There are a lot of misconceptions that these are just for athletes, models, or actresses,” Afreen says. “But these are used for a variety of diseases from neurological conditions to pain reduction. I was shocked to learn that a person with a history of stroke might receive cupping as part of treatment.” 

Qi Gong comprises slow, deep breaths and smooth movements aimed at focusing the mind and maximizing the body’s energy flow. “You can feel the energy in your body,” Jiang says. “The first couple tries I didn’t, but when I finally felt it, that’s when everything really clicked for me.” These are time-tested methods, she adds, used for hundreds of years.  

For a variety of reasons, the students could only try these techniques on themselves—and Liu says she expected a good number to watch rather than do. Yet every student tried at least something, and many tried everything. “The students amazed me,” she says. “They learn so they can bring these practices to themselves, their families, and maybe in the future, to their professional practice.” 

For weeks after returning, the students on that journey with Liu still overflow with excitement and awe, uplifted by the people they met and the experiences they had. Some came away with a greater understanding of themselves, their heritage, their future direction. “This trip was a combination of academic learning, culture exploring, alumni interaction, and sightseeing,” Liu says. “It was a short time, but we packed it all in.”

practicing chinese xi gong
Homepage image: Qi Gong comprises slow, deep breaths and smooth movements aimed at focusing the mind and maximizing the body’s energy flow. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Global)

Jianghong Liu is the Marjorie O. Rendell Endowed Professor in Healthy Transitions and the faculty director of the Global Health Minor in the School of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Ryan Afreen is a fourth year from New York City majoring in neuroscience in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

Kevin Huang is a third year from Bellmawr, New Jersey, majoring in cell and molecular biology in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

Linda Jiang, from Philadelphia, is a fourth year Bachelor of Science in Nursing student in the School of Nursing.