Traditional Chinese Medicine in Malaysia: A Brief Historical Overview of the Interactions between China and Malay Peninsula : Chinese Medicine and Culture

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Traditional Chinese Medicine in Malaysia: A Brief Historical Overview of the Interactions between China and Malay Peninsula

Tan, Wen Tien1; Wong, Hon Foong1,2; Ng, Shih Chau1,2; Goh, Si Woei1; Liu, Jun1; Hoo, Bao Ling1; Chai, Chyong En1; Lin, Xun1,

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Chinese Medicine and Culture: Jul–Sep 2018 - Volume 1 - Issue 2 - p 60-63
doi: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_17_18
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Malaysia is a melting pot where multiple races and ethnics live in the same country. Its various geological topological features and historical development resulted in many unique medicinal characteristics that nowhere else exists.

Chinese Medicine was introduced to the Malay Peninsula during the colonial era circa 18th to 19th century. Before 1963, Singapore was part of the British colony same as the Malay Peninsula. The British imported Chinese immigrants mainly for tin mining. Owing to this importation, the Chinese rose and became the second largest community in Malay Peninsula, and with large community comes the need for maintaining health and well-being. The early Chinese settlers had thus brought with them the knowledge of Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to Malaya.

In the early 20th century, TCM services were still mainly frequented by the Chinese people. However, as time goes by, TCM becomes one of the popular traditional medicines that are accepted by other ethnicities. In 2015, the Ministry of Health conducted a survey regarding the use of traditional medicine in Malaysia. The survey revealed that 29.25% of Malaysians have used traditional medicine. Chinese herb was the second most (13.69%) sought after treatment modalities, while the highest use was Malay Massage (41.92%).[1] TCM has thus contributed to the welfare of Malaysians. A separate voluntary registration by the Ministry of Health in 2008–2015 found that up to 60.73% of the total 13,846 registered traditional medicine and complementary medicine practitioners are TCM practitioners.[2]

In 2016, a T and CM Act was passed by the Malaysia Parliament to establish the T and CM Council and to regulate the T and CM services in Malaysia. TCM is one of the T and CM practices that fall under the regulation of the T and CM Council. With the approval from the Ministry of Health, TCM services are now been offered in Malaysia's public hospitals. This article aims to provide a brief overview on the development of TCM in the precolonial and postindependent Malaysia.


The interactions between China and Malay Peninsula can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (汉朝 202 B.C.-220 A.D.). Between 111 B.C.E. and 87BCE, Gu Ban (班固,32-92) recorded a small fleet stopped over in Malay Peninsula.[3] This is probably the earliest known record of the sea voyage. The Malay Peninsula continued to be a stopover place for the Chinese traders to the West for the coming centuries. The trading route soon reached its heyday in the Tang Dynasty (唐朝 618-907) and was later referred as the Maritime Silk Route. Although trading happened abundantly during this period, there were no official connections between China and Malay Peninsula.

The diplomatic relation between Malay Peninsula and China started in Ming dynasty (明朝 1368-1644). During the time of the Emperor YongLe (永乐大帝 1402-1424), Zheng He (郑和 1371-1433) was sent on several missions to scout the Western Ocean (Southeast Asia, Indian Ocean, Middle East, and Africa). It was during this time that interactions and exchanges started to flourish in the Malacca (满剌加) entrepôt.[4] The interactions between the two countries do not stop at mere trading. Instead, Chinese medicine was introduced to Malay Peninsula as part of cultural exchange, and in return, local specialties of Malay Peninsula were introduced to China. Historical records of the Ming Dynasty suggested that during Admiral Zheng's sea voyages, he was accompanied with a Chinese physician named Yu Kuang (匡愚) in his fleet. Kuang Yu recorded his experience in a book named Hua Yi Sheng Lan (华夷胜览 The Overall Survey of Chinese and Foreign Encounters). Unfortunately, the book was lost, but the preface preserved by Hong Zhang (张洪) showed that he had visited Malacca three times.[5] Rhinoceros horn, ivory, tortoise shell, pearl, agate, coral beads, nutmeg, agarwood, styrax, sandalwood, clove, black bear, gibbon, and other exotic plants, spices, and animals totaling 40 kinds were brought back to China between 1405 and 1432.[6] Some of them such as clove (丁香), nutmeg (肉头蔻), agarwood (沉香木), styrax (玉铃花), and sandalwood (檀香木) which are native to Malay Peninsula have even become common TCMs that are widely used until today.

In an age without engine, the Chinese traders who came along with Zheng He on the sea voyages would depend on the wind to return to China. While waiting for the change of monsoon, some of these Chinese traders married with local women and formed families. This gave rise to a hybrid form of community called Baba and Nyonya. An example was the first Kapitan or the community leader of Malacca, Kapitan Tay Hong Yong @ Tay Kap (鄭甲, 1572-1617). He was one of the early Chinese settlers from Fujian (福建).[7] The Baba and Nyonya incorporated the Chinese cooking techniques and ingredients with Malay spices and flavors.[8] While some of these spices, such as pepper, cardamom, and star anise, were imported to China and become common TCMs, the complexity of marrying them in food had also resulted in the special Nyonya cuisine seen only in Malaysia.

Although many Chinese traders would still leave for China, some had settled in Malacca.[9] The Chinese had also settled in Singapore even before the arrival of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore in 1819.[10] However, the massive influx of Chinese immigration did not take place until 17th Century. Internally, the Chinese encountered continuous wars between the resistance of the Ming loyalists and the Manchurian who later established the Qing Dynasty (清朝 1636–1912). Externally, the British required massive workforce for the development of the Malaya. Owing to such social circumstances, many Chinese living along the coastal areas of Fujian and Guangdong (广东) left their home and sailed down south. The Hokkien clan arrived early and worked mainly as merchants in the Penang, Singapore, and Malacca Straits whereas the Cantonese and Hakka clans came later and worked mainly as coolies or laborers in mining tin ore in the cities of Ipoh, Kampar, Gopeng, Kuala Lumpur, and Seremban.[11] Although they were called Chinese settlers, most of these men came with the intention to work in Malaya for a specific period, and then return to China enjoying a supposedly comfortable life. Unfortunately, the intention was never materialized. Many of these Chinese men ended residing permanently in Malaya. Nevertheless, the strong intention had resulted in the flourishing of Chinese education and the preservation of much Chinese heritage seen today.[12]

The Chinese settlers, both the rich merchants and poor laborers, brought with them the Chinese cultures to Malaya. The hot and humid tropical climate in Malaya was challenging to them. To maintain health and well-being, they resorted to the TCM that they are familiar with. The wealthy Chinese merchants would import Chinese medicines such as chrysanthemum flower, honeysuckle flower, coix, and lotus leaf from China and incorporate these medicines into their diets to clear internal heat and damp. The poor Chinese laborers were not so fortunate. Many suffered in agony because the British colonial government could not provide them with the necessary medical support. On seeing the sufferings, the rich Chinese merchants pooled together to help the community. They set up charity clinics and hired TCM practitioners directly from China to provide consultation to the needy countrymen.[1314] This was the beginning of TCM in Malaya. The strong cultural identity is an important factor in the development of TCM.

In 1929, a British botanist named David Hooper published a book “On Chinese Medicine: Drugs of Chinese Pharmacies In Malaya.” Hooper collected 456 types of Chinese medicine samples including 29 kinds of animal products and 12 kinds of mineral medicines from local Chinese medical hall. He then detailed their Chinese, English, and Malay names, as well as classified them by their taxonomy, origin, and function.[15] An analysis of his samples shows that a total of 49 products were recorded as drugs used in Chinese medicine, but they were neither imported from China nor were they used in China. An example is Biji Mundu (爪哇凤果 Garcinia dulcis)Figure 1, a tropical fruit tree native to Indonesia.[20] Their fruits are widely used in traditional Malay medicine for the treatment of wounds or scurvy.[16] Another example is Kembang Semangkok (胖大海 Sterculia lychnophora) [Figure 2], an evergreen tropical tree native to Southeast Asia.[21] Although tasteless, a drink made with the gelatinous mucilage from the soaked seed is said to be demulcent, febrifuge, and stomachic. It is thus used to treat diarrhea, dysentery, and fever.[1718] These two examples provided clues that TCM in the British colonial Malaya has evolved. It absorbed some of the local products and is used to treat illness. This movement of “locally grown medicinal plants for the local needs” is a phenomenon popular in the ethnobotanical study that could be explored further for future drug discovery.[19]

Figure 1:
Mundu (爪哇凤果 Garcinia dulcis Kurz.)
Figure 2:
Kembang Semangkok (胖大海 Sterculia lychnophora Hance.)

While some products are known to be used locally within the Malaya region, some traditional Malay medicines have even been exported to China and became an important part of TCM. An example is Lakawood (降香 Dalbergia parviflora), an aromatic heartwood found throughout Malaya. It was a highly prized commodity in China. Not only can lakawood be made into incense but also used in TCM as a regulator of the flow of Qi.[22] Other examples include cloves (丁香 Eugenia caryophyllata) and nutmeg (肉豆蔻 Myristica fragrans) which are known as spices and medicines in China for their warm, carminative, stomachic, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory functions.[23] They were native plants of the Malay Peninsula but owing to the medicinal values, they were also the trading commodities of the British colonial Malaya to China.

Traditional Malay medicine has also absorbed some of the medicinal knowledge from TCM. For instance, the Chinese liquorice (甘草 Glycyrrhiza uralensis) was called Akar Kayu Manis Cina, literally means sweet root from China in Malay.[24] Unlike the TCM usage which emphasizes it as tonic, the indigenous Malay people use it as an anti-inflammatory medication. In Indonesia, Chinese liquorice is said to protect the heart.[25]

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Conflicts of interest

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Development; history; Malaysia; Traditional Chinese Medicine

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