Chunchi Zhu crunches on a mouthful of wasabi nuts as she examines a thin steel needle. This evening, her client is Brigitte Cazalis, a big-boned French woman in her late fifties. It’s after 5 pm, but Chunchi still takes her time, spending minutes staring at Brigitte’s forehead. Brigitte winces as Chunchi’s hands search her face, massaging into pressure points, determining the precise point for penetration. “Here is perfect,” Chunchi says, grabbing an alcohol wipe. She sterilizes a point above Brigitte’s right eyebrow, and positions her needle. Chunchi leans. Brigitte’s brow furrows. “Shhh,” Chunchi whispers. The brow relaxes. Chunchi pierces.
Chunchi twirls the next needle with one hand, using the other to pull back wisps of hair with a sharp bobby pin. In her late-fifties, she boasts a commanding presence—even at 5’3”. But Chunchi is getting old. Loose skin at her elbows forms small pools on the bed’s pine frame. Raven dye masks her graying hair. Though waxed to perfection, her eyebrows have thinned, their arches just high enough to frame her features in a constant expression of stimulation. She’s got full makeup, but she is subtle, coloring her lips with pink gloss, pale enough to blend back into her face.
Wrinkles between Chunchi’s brows deepen as she concentrates, closing her eyes to let her fingers pick out points of tension, or pulling her hands back to let her eyes do the work. “Here. No, here,” she whispers to herself, feeling the subtle difference between two acupuncture points on Brigitte’s left ankle that are within a centimeter of one another.
Chunchi began Brigitte’s session with a fifteen-minute consultation. What’s the problem? Sinus headaches. Since when? Last week. Anything else? The usual. After all of Brigitte’s visits, the women have established between them what “the usual” is. A seasonal cough, occasional heartburn, some tension in the hands and feet. Chunchi and her needles have a fix for anything.
Chunchi’s first needle over the brow is already going to work on Brigitte’s sinuses. Brigitte sniffles, and Chunchi takes a Kleenex tissue to the moisture under her client’s nose. Chunchi inserted that first needle into point UB-2, one of about 400 acupuncture points that dot the human body. Twenty meridians, or energy channels, connect the points. UB-2 is located on the Tai Yang, the Urinary Bladder Meridian. Flowing through all the meridians is qi. In accordance with traditional Chinese philosophy, Chunchi believes that all pains and ailments of the human body result from an interruption in the flow of qi. Disturbance of qi in the Urinary Bladder Meridian can cause redness and itchiness in the eyes and, as in Brigitte’s case, sinus headaches. Inserted into a point where the acupuncturist feels a disturbance in flow, each needle opens up one clog in the meridian. “Qi as in qifen,” Chunchi explains in broken English, noting that qi shares a character with the Chinese word qifen, which means atmosphere. The character qi appears in dozens of Chinese words, and so it has multiple shades of meaning. Chunchi counts off eight English equivalents of qi on her fingers: energy, air, gas, breath, spirit, mood, temperament, scent.
But none of these words define qi. Chunchi describes the medium as an all-purpose body fluid. Existing in blood vessels, lymph nodes, and nerves, qi is as important to the human body as any vital organ. But, unlike physical body parts, qi is invisible and without phase. “Like water, qi becomes solid, liquid, gas. Whatever form body needs, the qi will become this.” Chunchi disagrees with her contemporaries who refer to qi as energy, saying that energy is too passive a term: “Qi is force! Force of life,” Chunchi says.
Brigitte’s qi clogs are everywhere. Undaunted, Chunchi scurries around the four sides of the bed. She pokes an acupuncture point here, pinches a bit of loose skin there, diagnosing Brigitte. “For cough, okay?” Chunchi asks. Not bothering to wait for Brigitte’s approval, she taps a fresh needle into place in the fleshy area under Brigitte’s right knuckles – point LU-9, on the Lung Meridian. That’ll clear up Brigitte’s wheezing.
In the next minutes, Chunchi quickens her pace, no longer stopping to feel the acupuncture points with the tips of her fingers. A needle goes through ST-41, a stomach meridian point on the right ankle – to ease acid reflux. She sticks another into CV-24, under Brigitte’s lower lip on the Conception Meridian – prevention from chronic laryngitis. She adds two more, one on each hand, on the Luozhen points – relief from stiffness of the neck. Chunchi surveys her work from the foot of the bed. Brigitte has become a porcupine, black needles sprouting from her pink skin at unnatural angles. Brigitte’s eyelids flutter closed. She is experiencing the de-qi sensation, which each needle triggers. Electricity spurts from the needle’s point of entry and races for the toes, where it can exit the body. After a few such bursts, the point of entry itself seems to pulse. Steady, then it quickens, then steady again, numbing the skin within a centimeter’s radius of the needle. Chunchi’s clients are usually skeptical of acupuncture’s legitimacy until they experience de-qi for themselves. “It’s just absolutely the most wonderful feeling, no pain at all. It’s a current,” murmurs Brigitte, running her fingers up and down her leg.
Chunchi sticks a final needle into place under Brigitte’s hair at the top of her head – along the Gall-Bladder Meridian: “For your allergies! They’re coming soon!”
“Chunchi, I don’t remember telling you about any allergies,” Brigitte says, puzzled.
Chunchi responds: “Your eyes. Red and won’t stay open. I see your eyes, and I know it. And it’s season change time, you forget?”
Brigitte laughs in astonishment. “If Chunchi told me to hang myself by my nails, I would do it without a moment’s hesitation. I trust her with my life.”
Brigitte’s trust is well earned. Chunchi studied acupuncture as a medical science under a rigorous program at Beijing’s Traditional Chinese Medicine College. But now she sees the discipline as an art rather than a science. “I feel like artist when I work,” she says. “My job is working each crazy patient, shape him into most balanced man. I make a beauty.”
For Chunchi, beauty is essential. The front window of her TCM Rejuvenation Center boasts a big red sign that reads “Beauty Points.” “I laugh every time I see that sign, because it’s true. I’m running my own little beauty parlor. Beauty of good health!” Chunchi jokes. Every morning, she comes down into her practice, the lower half of her two-family in east Watertown, two hours before her first session. “I don’t have to wake up early, because I live upstairs!” she says with relief. She then waters each of her potted bamboo plants and refills the crystal candy bowl at the front desk with individually wrapped green guava chewies. Chunchi thrusts open the front room’s light yellow curtains, rain or shine. Moving to the inner rooms, she readies a fresh box of sterilized stainless steel needles, changes the bed sheets, fluffs the pillows. All of this preparation takes a full hour, so Chunchi has one more hour to run daily errands. Suited up her signature crisp white lab coat, she stops across the street at Eastern Lamejun Bakers to pick up a triangle of baklava for breakfast. Next stop: the post office to order new shipments of Chinese herbs. Then: back to the studio for a session with regular patient Joe Collins, a seventy-something retired marine. This morning, Joe is only here for a routine appointment, but when his first visited, he came in with Chunchi’s most complex injury to date.
For thirty years, Joe learned to live with slight discomfort on the right side of his neck until one day, three years ago, when he woke up to an immobile neck. “I remember I couldn’t even park my car. You gotta turn your head to parallel park, and I couldn’t.” But before he approached Chunchi, Joe tried “the western thing.”
“On a whim, I called up the New England Patriots. I figured those locker room docs have to get the players back in the game as soon as they can, so they’d definitely be able to fix me up.” The Patriots’ medical staff agreed to meet Joe, but after reviewing x-ray and MRI results, they concluded: no visible problem. “They told me nothing was wrong,” Joe mocks. “I was stuck in one position! Obviously something was wrong.” Joe remembers asking the surgeons if they could examine him regardless of his negative test results. “I wanted them to operate, but they said no. ‘That part of your neck?! That’s lion country,’ they told me. One wrong move by those surgeons and the damage would be to my nervous system.” His questions unanswered by the west, Joe turned to the east for help. Chunchi was frank. Joe’s recovery was going to be slow. She asked for six months of his time, but she was sure she could fix him. “She figured out what it was right away. Turns out I’d been keeping years of stress in that part of my neck,” Joe says. Problems at home and problems at work all lived in his neck. The Patriots’ staff saw no physical issue because there was none.
“Now he moves,” Chunchi says with a grin. “Show, Joe!”
Joe bobs his head up and down, his comb-over flip-flopping in front of his eyes. “Chunchi’s got a way of getting in without cutting up, like surgeons do. I don’t understand it. But, hey, I’m not complaining,” Joe says, turning his head side-to-side 180 degrees with ease.
“Okay, shh!” Chunchi orders. It’s time to get back to Joe’s session. Chunchi commands her patients without hesitation, but her brusqueness is limited to her treatment rooms. She relives her childhood with laconism and unease:
Chunchi studied in seventh grade when China faced Mao Ze Dong’s communist takeover and Cultural Revolution. “That one year has many terrible memories. I cannot forget, some things always in mind,” she says. Chunchi reaches for a yellow legal pad and pen in the middle of her sentence and begins to write. With a few scratches of the pen, she has drawn a model of her seventh grade classroom. The room’s desks are divided into four groups, reading: Red Guard, Laborers, Professionals, and Landowners. “In school, they divide us by parents’ work,” Chunchi explains. “The Red Guard children are strongest. They were caps with red stars, and this means they beat us, take our food, steal our thing – anything.” The Guard did not harass the laborer children, but the Professionals’ and the Capitalists’ children bore the torture. Chunchi, whose parents worked as TCM doctors, fell into the Professionals category. “I spent grade seven as my classmates’ servant,” she remembers. “I had no more worth that this.” The mental effects of such torture on Chunchi paralleled the physical effects. She limps slightly on an injured knee from the year. “We have school field trip to farm, and we walk for two days,” she recalls. “Everyone carries clothes, water, supplies. I carry double because Red Guard tell me. I fall four, five times always on this knee,” Chunchi says, massaging her right knee. “I first go to learn acupuncture to heal myself! Now, others,” she says. Chunchi uses not acupuncture, but acupressure massage for her knee’s physical therapy.
This same technique helps Chunchi with her next client, Rudra, a forty-nine year old software exec from Nepal. For his session, Chunchi combines acupressure with acupuncture. Acupressure is very close to acupuncture, but Chunchi uses her fingers instead of needles to access acupuncture points. Chunchi instructs Rudra to lie down and cradles his neck in her hands. She feels for hardness under his skin. If she finds pressure at a particular point on the neck, she knows the flow of qi is irregular, too slow, at that point. Chunchi finds a point of interruption right away – GV-15 on the Du Mai meridian. The Du Mai is translated as Governing Meridian, and it extends from the anus up the spinal cord over the back of the head to the forehead. If qi flow is irregular through this meridian, headaches, muscle pains, and even depression become issues. The point Chunchi is focusing on is located an inch above the nape of Rudra’s neck. She smacks her lips in satisfaction and digs her finger into point, applying heavy pressure.
Rudra jumps out of the bed. “Argh! That’s where I got my clot!” he shouts. A few years ago, Rudra suffered from a mild stroke that resulted from a vertebral dissection, or clot, in one of the arteries leading to his brain. When he tells Chunchi he’s been taking a blood thinner, she scoffs.
“This western method! Nobody cares about balance! Why are they making your blood thinner?!” she says in frustration. For believers of ancient Chinese medicine, qi-flow is as essential to survival as blood flow. To lose precious blood is to lose precious qi. Chunchi finds blood-thinners ridiculous because they deplete the body of qi. “How can your body heal itself if you take away life force?” Chunchi says, going for GV-15 again, gentler this time. She supports Rudra’s neck with her left hand and massages with her right, using one finger at a time on the point.
For the second half of the session, Chunchi’s goal is to eradicate a dull shoulder pain that Rudra has complained of on-and-off since the stroke. First, she asks him to swing his right arm about like a windmill. Chunchi tut-tuts her disapproval as Rudra displays limited range of motion. When she asks him to attempt the same motion with his left arm, he is easily able. “See! You can do this swinging,” Chunchi tells Rudra. Chunchi has proven Rudra’s potential. Now she just has to harness qi to balance the ability in his left and right shoulders. Pulling Rudra up off the bed, Chunchi demonstrates some stretches for the shoulder. Lock fingers behind back. Put opposite hand on opposite shoulder blade. Legs straight: opposite hand on opposite knee. “You need to wake up your shoulder,” Chunchi demands. “I know it is possible.”
Chunchi’s steel needles affect each of her patients differently. “Sometimes it makes you sleepy. When I do needles on myself, I fall asleep for four, five hours at least,” she says. “Sometimes it gives with fresh energy.” The goal is to bring about balance. “If patient needs to relax, needles make him sleep. And if patient needs to wake up, needles can do that too,” she explains.
Chunchi’s favorite client, Alan, almost always requires sedation. “He is my old friend, very nice, very funny. But sometimes he talks too much, doesn’t let me work” she says, perched on the edge of one of her own waiting lounge chairs in the front room. Today is one of Alan’s biweekly sessions, and Chunchi is expecting him.
Alan scheduled his first session with Chunchi on a Sunday evening ten years ago, two nights before tax day. “I had an uncontrollable rage problem,” he says. Alan’s business partner had cheated him out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and just the thought of money management would make him want to “break a few plates”. Alan assumed that his acupuncture session would include needles, but Chunchi used something from her herb stockpile instead. By the end of the session, she had attached three mustard seeds to on each of Alan’s ears with surgical tape. The seeds would send electrical signals to Alan’s brain to shift the balance of brain chemicals to regulate his mood to control his rage. “It was quite an explanation! But I remember still thinking the whole thing was a load of bullshit!” Alan says, guffawing. But he decided to keep his mouth shut. “When I got home, I sat down, smoked a cigarette, and thought to myself, ‘The heck with it! I’ll just do the damn taxes.’ And I did.”
Alan looks over at Chunchi, who is sterilizing one of his needles. “That woman is a genius,” he whistles. Chunchi smiles, but keeps her focus on her alcohol wipes. “No really, Chunchi,” Alan goes on. “I mean, I wouldn’t trust you for one second with a broken leg, but the internal stuff, you’ve really got me figured out in here. Yeah, that’s what this Chinese medicine is good for. The internal stuff.” Alan’s sentences get shorter as the sedation effect of the needles kicks in. He tries to strain his neck to stay awake. Chunchi pushes his forehead to the pillow. He snores.