Daoists outlaw use of rare species in traditional medicine

How explaining ancient beliefs can help to preserve endangered species


In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the remedy for an illness is intended to restore balance – to enable the elemental life force, qi, by redressing the balance between the two opposed elemental groups of yin and yang.


Contrary to what some believe in the West, TCM is not dependent for its remedies on a supply of rhino horn, shark teeth or obscure parts of tigers. In fact, the vast majority of preparations are herbal and have no animal component.

But it is undeniable that in recent decades, with increase affluence in China, demand has grown for the most exotic ingredients for underground TCM 'cures' in the belief that their scarcity will make the remedy more potent.


No need for use of rare species in remedies

The impact on rhinos, tigers, bears and other large species is well documented. What has been less well publicised is the fact that TCM does not require the killing of endangered species – and one of China's major religions has unequivocally condemned the practice.

The Daoist Association of China made a study of the problem in the late 1990s. It concluded that any medicine that endangered a rare species or caused undue suffering to animals would not work. In 1999 the association issued an edict excommunicating any traditional medical practitioner who used prescriptions that contravene the laws of balance.


In addition, Daoist scholars searched ancient medical texts for different prescriptions that did not involve endangered species.


'A new dimension of Daoist teachings emerged,' noted theologian Martin Palmer, 'rooted in tradition but addressing a contemporary issue. It is an example of how all religions move forward while maintaining ancient truths.'




Demand for soup containing shark fins has declined dramatically since China's official Daoist association declared that the use of rare species in remedies was against Daoist principles – and hence the remedies would not work Picture: Taylorklekamp, Pixabay


The problem of endangered species being targeted for so-called "remedies" has not disappeared. But it has been driven underground – outlawed by the Chinese government, albeit not always effectively, and forbidden by Daoism's highest authorities.


The ban fits well with other aspects of Daoism's need to find a balance and avoid excess: when affluent worshippers began bringing huge quantities of incense sticks to temples, perhaps believing it would make their prayers more effective, temple leaders stepped in. They decreed that three incense sticks was enough: one for Heaven, one for Earth, and one for yourself.


The Daoist view on incense encapsulates its view on the environment: excess consumption should be avoided, and the best riches consist in preserving the largest number of species and natural environments.


‘A new dimension of Daoist teachings emerged, rooted in tradition but addressing a contemporary issue. It is an example of how all religions move forward while maintaining ancient truths' – Martin Palmer

There are wider consequences to this belief. Working with the World Wildlife Fund, the Shaanxi Daoist community is promoting 'Environmental Temples', including a pilot Tiejia Ecology Temple at Mt. Taibai in the Qinling mountains in Shaanxi province. All temples are now meant to be built to Shaanxi standards, by government decree.


The Daoist association has its own Seven Year Plan for Environmental Protection, which features ecological education, conservationism, and wildlife protection.


What of the impact on endangered species? Demand, at least, is reduced, In a survey, 19 out of 20 Beijing restaurants reported a “significant decline" in shark fin consumption in 2014, helped by a ban on the dish at state banquets. In addition 85 per cent of Chinese consumers surveyed claimed they had given up shark fin soup within the previous three years.


• Study: Daoism and the Project of an Ecological Civilisation, M Schonfeld, 2019


• Report: Shark Fin Sales in China Show Promising Signs of Decline, Oceana.org 2014