Women doctors defy male dominance in Tibetan medicines

Tibetan women, considered unsuitable to study and practice medicine for more than 3,000 years, are now playing an equal role to men in Tibetan medicine.

Lhaphun, a gynecologist with the Tibetan Hospital in Lhasa, said she was astonished to be admitted to the Tibet College of Tibetan Medicine (TCTM) 26 years ago as she was sure she would have to study Western medicine.

"In my mind, scripture halls were where Tibetan doctors are taught," recalled the 45-year-old doctor.


For thousands of years, knowledge and treatment of Tibetan medicine had been passed down in monasteries and the best doctors were often monks. Women rarely had the chance to learn medicine, and their roles were restricted to household chores and raising children.

In 1963, fifteen Tibetan women entered Lhasa's Men-Tsee-Khang -- a traditional Tibetan hospital founded in 1916 -- to begin formal medical study.

Women now make up half of the 800 physicians at the Tibetan Hospital in Lhasa. Of new students enrolled by the nearby Tibet College of Tibetan Medicine each year, almost a half are female.

Recalling her college life, Lhaphun said unlike traditional Dratsang (monastery schools) where lessons were given in dimly lit scripture halls, their classrooms were in modern buildings.

The routine monastic practice of chanting mantras was skipped, but classical works by ancient medical masters were memorized to obtain the basic theories and knowledge of Tibetan medicine.

Lhaphun and her classmates familiarized themselves with herbalism, grasping diagnosis and various therapies. In summer, they followed their instructors to learn about herbs in the mountains.

The most impressive course for Lhaphun was ethics. Thirty-one sections of Volume II of the Four Medical Tantras, an encyclopedia of Tibetan medicine dating back to the eighth century, are devoted to medical ethics.

"The best doctors should take all patients as their children and treat them equally. That makes the job noble," said Lhaphun.

Tenzin Yangjen, 22, graduate of the West China School of Pharmacy at Sichuan University, joined the Tibetan Medicine Development and Research Institute at the Lhasa Hospital last year.

"It's no longer rare for women to study medicine in Tibet. Women doctors work in all departments of our hospital," she said.


Describing her job as finding "secret" prescriptions in classical medical tantras and revitalizing them through modern technology, Tenzin Yangjen said her goal was to standardize Tibetan medicine as much as possible.

"For our generation, the mission is to bring Tibetan medicine to the world, and the key is standardization," she said.

To reach that goal, Tenzin Yangjen and her colleagues have been working to standardize herbal products using modern extractive technology to turn traditional decoctions and pills to granules that are more popular in today's market.

Lhaphun has worked at the Lhasa hospital for 21 years. A primary task has been to find and rescue endangered therapies and explore ways to integrate them with modern medical science. For instance, her team uses modern equipment to conduct data analysis and correlate their findings with traditional urine and pulse diagnosis.

"Without standardization in diagnosis, testing methods and treatment, it will be difficult to popularize Tibetan medicine beyond the plateau," she said.

Her team is also looking to revitalize traditional theraapies such as blood-letting, moxibustion, cupping and others. Even diarrhoea can be used as a treatment to help patients eliminate toxins, said Lhaphun. A retired expert from a hospital in Nagqu has been invited to explain the diarrhoea therapy to the 30-strong staff in Lhaphun's department.

Classical medical tantras record the diagnosis and treatment of pediatric and women's conditions and put them into 40 categories. So far, only one-fifth of those therapies have been put to clinical use in her department. Of the tens of thousands of prescriptions mentioned, the number in use is roughly 200.

"The potential of Tibetan medicine is huge. There is so much we need to learn," she said.