When the doctor diagnosed 77-year-old Ma Su Qun with lung cancer in January, her family decided not to tell her the bad news. This is a normal practice in much of China, where cancer is seen not as something to be fought and defeated but as a definite death sentence.
"When people think of cancer, they think they are going to die," a Chinese friend told me. To let someone know the news would only make them afraid and unhappy during what will surely be their final months, or so goes the logic.
So it was not until two months after the diagnosis that Ma Su Qun's family finally told her that she had stage I lung cancer. They felt OK about breaking the news because it didn't look like she was dying anymore - it appeared she had found a cure, and that cure was tea made from poop.
It is rainy and gray the day I find Ma Su Qun and her miraculous poop tea. She lives in Golden Stone Village, a rural, hilly backwater a few hours drive from Changsha, the capital city of Hunan Province.
The poop has to be fresh. It's a mixture of goat and bovine shit, collected in the hills right up the road from Ma Su Qun's house and dried in the sun until approximately 80 percent of the water has evaporated. If it's too wet to dry it outside, she will bake it in the oven. The poop is then ground into a fine powder and stored in an old "MIDDLE-AGED & SENIOR MILK POWER" can that Ma Su Qun keeps in a desk by her bed.
She prepares a cup for me by spooning out a couple of heaps from the can onto a porous white cloth laid flat. She wraps the cloth around the fecal powder to make a tea bag and places it into a rusty metal mug. She then adds plenty of white sugar to the mix and fills it with water. She sets the mug on a gas stove to boil, and, after a couple minutes, she takes it off and pours the mud-colored liquid into a glass mug. She hands it to me and I take a sip.
Folk remedies such as Ma Su Qun's poop tea are common in China's rural areas, where only 20 percent of the country's health care services are located - that means more than 100 million people are without access to expedient medical care. And for most peasants, the total cost of transportation and out-of-pocket expenses at the doctor's office (which may or may not get reimbursed by insurance) is just out of the question. Many also don't see a need for a doctor when simple remedies that use readily found ingredients (such as poop) are seen as legitimate means of medicine.
The persistence of folk remedies can be linked to the widespread practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). This ancient system is based on the idea that the illnesses are caused by disruptions of natural equilibriums in the body, such as heat and cold. These imbalances, according to TCM, can be manipulated and relieved through the consumption of specific organic ingredients, along with other techniques like sage burning and acupuncture.
While many Western health practitioners have found scientific evidence that several TCM practices can heal people, much of it remains unproven by the standards of lab coats. Meanwhile, peasants in the countryside often craft dubious-sounding home remedies like being stung by bees, eating live ants, and even chowing down on "virgin boy eggs," which are eggs boiled in the urine of young boys (this is thought to prevent heat stroke).
Of the 1,700 people in Golden Stone Village, at least 40 percent of them have consumed the poop tea, according to an article in a Chinese medical journal. Most of them are middle-aged and elderly. Two other ladies besides Ma Su Qun have claimed that it cured their cancer. It has been alleged to help also with skin problems, bone aches, and gynecological issues.
People will often tell you in China that a place is special because of certain natural elements: a hot spring that makes you live longer or bark from a particular tree that gives you a boner. The secret of the poop tea, I was told, lies in the local flora that the goats and cows feed on in the hills. Looking out at a dense line of trees that Ma Su Qun was pointing toward, surrounded by rural emptiness and hearing only the sound of roosters and dogs, without a pharmacy or hospital for miles, I couldn't but sort of believe her. Maybe there was something cancer-curing in that mess of green and purple? Such is the mystifying power of folk medicine in a place shut off from the modern world. Witch doctors, voodoo priests, tiger's penis, poop tea - it all suddenly made sense.
Before I sipped the poop tea, I gave it a sniff. It was a familiar smell, the kind that hangs around any farm or horse stable. Having many fond memories in such areas, I almost enjoy that scent. Almost. I nearly gagged when I put my nose to the steaming cup. Still, I sipped. The first taste in my mouth was the overwhelming sweetness from the sugar. That was followed by the taste of poop, which you can imagine pretty easily - just stick your head in a toilet and inhale through your mouth. It was, without a doubt, shitty.
Ma Su Qun claims she doesn't have cancer anymore. She is healthy-looking. She smiles a lot, and for someone who is nearly 80 years old, she moves around fluidly. While I was there she went briefly to the garden to do some weeding. Whatever her actual physical health is, she is not bedridden, nor is she constantly heaving or weak, as people with lung cancer typically are. Who is to say if it is because of the poop tea or not?
It's probably not the poop in any direct way, at least. And it's worth noting that although drying, baking, and steeping it in boiling water no doubt helps, manure can contain viral and bacterial pathogens that can taint drinking water. Ma Su Qun is living proof that whatever she's doing, the germs in the poop tea probably aren't a huge risk, but drinking shit still can't be recommended, even if you're desperate to cure your cancer.
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