Love Song to a Chinese Cough Syrup

herb insert picThere’s a way to feel better if you have a cough and sore throat: Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa, a loquat syrup full of flowers, leaves, roots and bulbs. It works by the spoon, or in hot water as tea. Chinese Robitussin, if you will, but so much better. Pei Pa Koa is so popular in China (and 20 countries of Asia), the stacked boxes in mid-winter at Kam Man, nearby Chinese mega-supermarket in E. Hanover, NJ, is practically floor-to-ceiling. I buy in triplicate.

The TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) formula, commercially bottled in the ’40s in Hong Kong, dates back 500 years to the reign of Emperor Kangxi (fourth ruler of the Qing dynasty). filial piety pictureThe logo shows a child serving it to an elderly, bedridden parent. (The legend, or back story: A child, ancestor of the company’s founders, went looking to cure his mother’s cough, and so impressed a doctor with his tender filial piety, the doctor gave up his secret formula.) I’m not calling domination by an oppressively close family a good relationship. But I find the emblem sweet.

Active ingredient is either the bulb (korm) of the fritillaria flower–says Kam Man pharmacist and the Internet — or elm bark, say the National Institutes of Health. I’m not taking sides. Other herbs: loquat leaf extract (beautiful photos of these leaves, fruits, and root extracts in this blog post by a TCM student), adenophora root, poria mushroom, citrus peel, root of platycodon (–that’s campanula, Chinese bell flower–I’ve grown this lovely, small, late-summer flower), pinellia tuber, trichosanths seed, polygala root, licorice root, ginger rhizome, schizandra fruit, and peppermint. These herbs are traditionally associated with clearing up phlegm, alleviating cough, and soothing sore throat.*

Campanula or Chinese bell flower

Campanula or Chinese bell flower

The National Institute of Health’s National Library of Medicine calls Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa “a pleasant tasting natural herbal based liquid especially formulated for relief of minor discomfort and to protect irritated areas in sore mouth and sore throat. Contains No Alcohol, artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives. Active ingredient: Elm Bark. In a sucrose syrup and honey base of herbal extracts consisting of loquat leaf, fritillary, balloon flower root, snakegourd seed, sand root, senega root, tuckahoe, licorice root, ginger root, five flavored seed, and peppermint.

The package insert illustrates each one with great botanical drawings. The flowers seem to be dancing. Which is how I feel after finishing my mug.

How we love you, Pei Pa Koa.

*Institute of Traditional Medicine: “Some of the alkaloids have been isolated and used for pharmacology testing, revealing antitussive effects, smooth muscle relaxation, and reduction of blood pressure. There are also diterpenes in the bulb, and these may have antitussive effects as well.”

Hillary Clinton/Empress Wu

empress-wuI’m sure this comparison has been made before but I can’t help thinking, if I were Joe Biden, I would hire a taster to avoid poisoning. Empress Wu – grandmother and mother of emperors; empress during the splendor of the Tang dynasty – was the only female emperor in four thousand years of Chinese imperial rule. One of her claims to fame/notoriety, beyond her gender (claim enough): She poisoned people.

I feel sexist saying this (or anything, against Hillary), but I perceive her as being transparently power-obsessed, in a way that’s frightening. Even if sometimes used benignly.

Natural Disaster Forecasting

August 1, 1971. George Harrison and Ravi Shankar joined on stage by friends Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston to raise funds for UNICEF relief in Bangladesh.

August 1, 1971. George Harrison and Ravi Shankar joined on stage by friends Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston to raise funds for UNICEF relief in Bangladesh.

No snowmageddon in NY — though it’s nice, no school or work. After warnings of a snow storm of “historic proportions” it’s fun mocking the “state-of-emergency closure” of NY and NJ’s highways, bridges, tunnels, even the subway. Only 15″ snow total here (less than .5 meter), counting old snow from an earlier, small Alberta Clipper storm.

But forecasting is real, and it is saving hundreds of thousands of lives, I recently learned (in part through some writing for UN humanitarian-emergency agencies). Bangladesh suffered the Bhola tropical cyclone in 1970 (tropical cyclone, in American English, equals hurricane; Ghola was Cat. 3 in strength; Hurricane Sandy was just a Cat 1). Bhola was the deadliest storm ever recorded. Its storm surge was responsible for the deaths of 500,000 people, when their villages, in the Ganges Delta, were erased by the thousands. George Harrison and Ravi Shankar’s Concert for Bangladesh was organized for the survivors.*

Now compare that to an equally strong storm that caused disastrous flooding in Pakistan in 2014. Same-strength cyclone. Yet fewer than 500 people died in the disaster. Instead, because of investments in forecasting, 700,000 people were evacuated in time

[ * The 1971 Bhola cyclone hit millions of refugees uprooted by Bangladesh’s gruesome war for independence from Pakistan. The humanitarian crisis was worsened still more by larger-than-usual annual rains the next year, 1971, when the concert was held in NYC. ]


Chinese earthquake sensor. American Museum of Natural History.

Chinese earthquake sensor. American Museum of Natural History.

Second amazing thing: This ancient Chinese earthquake sensor (A.D. 132) (From “Nature’s Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters,” a current special exhibition at the AMNH. Eight toads, eight dragons’ heads. This didn’t forecast or measure magnitude of the natural dissaster, but showed its direction. Depending on where the shaking was coming from, a ball would fall from one of the dragons mouths into one of the frogs’. Not bad for 2,000 years ago.

Of course (tragically), the most deadly natural disaster in human history is believed to be the 1931 flooding in central Chin of the Yellow River, (which we discussed in “Yellow River of Sorrows“) in which as many as 4 million people died.

Stay warm & dry.

And thank you, whoever you are, readers on so many continents! If you like our blog, click “Sign me up” on the right for an email when we post, or follow @jillhamburgcoplan on Twitter.

“It’s totally foreign”

Photo credit Jake Rosenberg for W Hotels

Photo credit Jake Rosenberg for W Hotels

So, it was a short fashion (“Styles” section) article so I don’t mean to say this is even trying to be authoritative. But it’s a bit meaningful in the category understanding/misunderstanding eachother. This pretty pic caught my eye in Sunday’s paper, a NYC-based fashion designer on a junket to Beijing, seeking inspiration at the Summer Palace, walking distance from where we lived. She says the first thing she did was hope on the subway:

“Nothing is written in English so you need to get detailed descriptions of what the characters look like for where you’re going…It’s totally foreign.”

As riders of Beijing’s massive subway system know, not only are all the signs in English — and maps and electronic notices. There is also an announcer’s voice, that comes on at every station, to say where you are, IN ENGLISH!

All Beijing subway maps are in Mandarin and English

All Beijing subway maps are in Mandarin and English

So what’s up with that? Is the narrative of “It’s totally foreign” so overriding that it has the power to overtake a really clear & obvious physical reality? Or maybe she was never really on the subway? Just thought it would be cool to say that? (Or is she a teeny bit crazy? Or did the writer make it up?) The other thing that’s odd about it is this designer has lived in the Arabian Gulf, and a few cities in Europe, before moving to the US.

The semiotician of colonial framing in me says, this is othering that happens unconsciously, even when it contradicts actual reality.

It’s really pretty considerate of Beijing – in a country that is Jekyll-&-Hyde, at best, in welcoming foreigners, but generally speaking is not that fond – to have all the capital’s subway signs, maps & announcements in English as well as Mandarin. More than you can say for NYC!!!!

[Lots of people probably noticed! The next day this ran online:

Correction: An earlier version of this post included a quotation from Ms. Nonoo that referred incorrectly to Beijing’s mass transit system. The subway has signage in English as well as in Chinese; it is not the case that “Nothing is written in English.” The quotation has been removed.”]

Chinese Police in the American Mosaic

Young Officer Wenjian Liu’s tragic murder in Brooklyn at age 32 gives us a chance to pause & marvel, at least, at how he was part of the dynamic, salutary building of America’s classic ‘mosaic’… new arrivals making NYC their home. My friend David Chen, fantastic NY Times investigative reporter, penned this front-page story today on the rather dramatic surge in Chinese- (& other Asian-) Americans in the ranks of the NYPD. Read it to find out why…

(Yahoo carrying images by Carlo Allegri of dignitaries & weeping cops, gathered by the thousands at the funeral, which included Buddhist monks, and citizens holding “We [heart] NYPD” placards in freezing rain.)

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Calligraphy for Wenjian Liu: “A vision left unrealized”

Outdoor calligraphy market, Xi'an

Outdoor calligraphy market, Xi’an: “To see far, you must climb to the mountain’s heights.”

"I love Wudang" by a calligrapher who stopped teaching high school after experiencing a sudden mystical calling.

“I love Wudang” by a calligrapher who stopped teaching high school after experiencing a sudden mystical calling.

The living art of characters drawn in a burst of inspiration — a Chinese funerary custom with poignancy at the funeral today of Wenjian Liu, a NYPD officer gunned down by a crazed madman in his squad car in Brooklyn in December. We read today in the NY Times (Calligrapher Brings an Elegant Touch To a Chinese Ceremony by Jeffrey E. Singer and Kirk Semple)   how the calligrapher wrote infused with the deceased’s moving spirit. (Of course, it takes lots of premediation, drafts, and many tries.) Then the finished scrolls play a sober, decorative role  honoring and giving comfort.

An Asia Society curator, a young white woman we met once, told us Chinese calligraphy sparked her life work when, as a teenager she fell in love with it studying in Taiwan. One Coplan received directions to study hard in calligraphy (phrased much more poetically-through an ancient stanza) —a gift from a calligrapher now hanging above his desk (left photo above). Another collects pieces, if he’s met the calligrapher. A Buddhist piece from a monastery in holy WuTai Shan, a Confucian saying picked off the sidewalk in his birthplace, Qufu, Shandong…and finally (photo above right), a bit of an odyssey but he tracked down a Taoist calligrapher (and tai qi master) in his little apartment outside Wudang Shan, tai qi’s birthplace, near Wuhan.

The New York Times presents local master calligrapher Zhao Ru, 73, an immigrant and sometime-restaurant worker originally from Toisan, who volunteered his services for Liu’s funeral. He used top-quality ink donated by a bookseller in Sunset Park (Brooklyn’s “Chinatown”). Officer Liu’s “spirit moved me to conjure this work,” he says. The funeral home’s Chinese consultant is quoted: Zhao’s calligraphy gave “the room the high quality of the life that he led.”

Photo by Karsten Moran for the New York Times. Zhao Ru, Brooklyn calligrapher, creating memorial scroll fo Officer Wenjian Liu's funeral today

Photo by Karsten Moran for the New York Times. Zhao Ru, Brooklyn calligrapher, creating memorial scroll fo Officer Wenjian Liu’s funeral today

Zhao’s calligraphy pieces read:

“In the sphere of law enforcement his vision is left unrealized”

“For his service to the people, his name will forever be cherished in our hearts.”

“A model for all police.”