The Famous Doctor Ho

The Famous Doctor Ho of Lijiang, 1921-2018. Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor

Unable to sleep (damn this insomnia,) I woke up and checked my email to find that the Famous Doctor Ho has, as the Naxi people of Yunnan, China say, “Gone to the Mountain.” 

I wrote about the good doctor for a guidebook I did for Lonely Planet. Later, I wrote a story called The Famous Doctor Ho that I put in my illustrated book of short stories, How Not to Avoid Jet Lag. In honor of the good doctor, I present the story here.

May he raconteur eternally among the celestial scholars!

The Famous Doctor Ho

The Famous Doctor Ho. Illustration by David Lee Ingersoll

The Famous Doctor Ho. Illustration by David Lee Ingersoll

Doctor Ho is a famous Chinese herbalist and physician whose fame is like a perpetually rolling snowball inside of which lies a frozen dwarf clad in bondage gear.

Who put that dwarf in there? Why is he wearing bondage gear? Who started the ball rolling?

Like this metaphorical snowball, a visit with Doctor Ho provokes a series of questions better left unanswered.

Every casual traveler to the outskirts of Lijiang has visited Doctor Ho. And every China-based writer who’s so much as mastered rudimentary use of chopsticks has, at some point, written about him. And this is why Doctor Ho is the most written about Chinese doctor in all the world.

He is also the most talked about Chinese Doctor in all the world, but this is largely because he talks about himself so very much.

About ten minutes into my visit with Doctor Ho it occurred to me that I was a character — played in my imagination by Steve Buscemi-in a Coen Brothers film, with Doctor Ho’s son played by Billy Bob Thornton.

Doctor Ho, of course, played himself.

(Author’s note: the following dialogue is a rough approximation, and should not be taken in any way to be “journalism.”
Also, the long series of periods preceding most of Doctor Ho’s dialogue is meant to indicate actual dialogue that I’m not even going to try to recall, but if I did, would be roughly along the same lines as the dialogue that follows. If you like, you can imagine Doctor Ho saying more things about himself, various permutations of “I am the most famous Chinese doctor in the world,” etc., etc.
However, it’s important to note that the three periods after Doctor Ho’s Son’s dialogue are, in fact, ellipses, meant to indicate Doctor Ho’s son’s actual dialogue, which mostly consisted of a brief summary of his father’s previous sentence.)

I am sitting in a plastic chair, and Doctor Ho and his son are standing in front of me, relating something reminiscent of the following dialogue:

DOCTOR HO
…I study English with Joseph Rock. It is he who told me to become a doctor. In 1994, Mike Wallace came to visit me. Here is an article from a magazine about me.

DOCTOR HO’S SON
(handing me a yellowing magazine article wrapped in plastic)
Magazine article about my father…

DOCTOR HO
…Taoist physician in the Jade Dragon Mountains of Lijiang. Mister Bruce Chatwin write this about me in his book.

DOCTOR HO’S SON
(handing me photocopy of article wrapped in plastic)
Mister Bruce Chatwin…

DOCTOR HO
…In 2001, film crew from Canada come to make documentary about the Famous Doctor Ho. Also have a newspaper journalist, write story for Globe and Mail.

DOCTOR HO’S SON
(handing me photocopy of article wrapped in plastic)
Globe and Mail…

DOCTOR HO
…In 65 years I have treated over 100,000 patients, never charging money. Only donation. I am poor, but happy. Happy is most important. American Medical Association has written a paper about me.

DOCTOR HO’S SON
(handing me photocopy of article wrapped in plastic)
American Medical Association…

DOCTOR HO
…Also Englishman, Michael Palin. Television program with BBC, come to visit me in, 2003, 2004 maybe.

ME
(trying to be clever, interjecting what would be my only line in the whole scene after initial introduction)
…Michael Palin!

It went on like this for close to an hour. After it was over, I went into Doctor Ho’s back room, where he felt my pulse and looked at my tongue (or was it the other way around?) and made as reasonable a diagnosis of my current condition as any good herbalist might.

DOCTOR HO
You aren’t sleeping well, and this is making your immune system weak. I’ll prepare some herbal medicine for you to take with you.

(Doctor Ho putters around the shelves of his apothecary mixing this powder with that before giving me a fairly large bundle wrapped in cloth.)

DOCTOR HO
Drink lots of water with this.

He didn’t ask me for any money, but I felt it best to donate a red Mao hundred yuan note.

He was, after all, a famous doctor.


The Famous Doctor Ho is one of 19 illustrated stories from How Not to Avoid Jet Lag and other tales of travel madness, available through this link.

 

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