Chinese Dentistry

Roaming in quest of novelty through that mine of marvels, a Chinese city, we were a witness the other day of a strange but not uncommon scene.

We had halted in front of the stall of a street apothecary, surgeon, and general practitioner, and were turning over with our eyes his stock of simples, dragons’ teeth, tigers’-claws, and like drugs used as ingredients in the native pharmacopoeia, when along came a man, holding his hand up to his jaw, and apparently in great pain. He sat down by the doctor and explained to him that he was suffering with the toothache, to get rid of which he would like to have his tooth removed. The doctor opened his patient’s mouth and inspected the aching tooth; then he took a small phial from his stock of medicines, and into the palm of his hand he shook a few scruples of a pink-coloured powder. He next licked his finger and dipped it into the powder, and inserting this into the man’s mouth, rubbed it on the aching tooth and gum. He repeated this three or four times, and then concluded by turning the patient’s head upside down; when, to the no small astonishment of many of the bystanders, among whom was apparently the man himself, the tooth dropped out and fell upon the ground. The doctor then asked him if he had felt any pain, to which he replied that he had not, and the payment of a small fee brought the seance to a close. At our application the tooth was picked up and very civilly exhibited to us by the owner himself; it was evidently fresh from a human jaw, though there had not been the slightest effusion of blood from the man’s mouth. The thought had naturally suggested itself to us that the whole thing was a hoax, and that the patient was an accomplice; but if so, the doctor was no novice at sleight of hand, and the expression of astonishment on the other man’s face when he found his tooth gone, was as perfect a specimen of histrionic emotion as it has ever been our lot to behold.

That night we had visions of a large establishment in Regent Street, with an enormous placard announcing “Painless Dentistry” over the door, and crowds of dukes and duchesses mounting and descending our stairs to have their teeth extracted by some mysterious process imported from China, and known to ourselves alone. Next day we proceeded to rummage through our Chinese medical library and see what we could hunt up on the subject of dentistry. The result of this search we generously offer to our readers, thus, perhaps, sacrificing the chance of securing a colossal fortune.

In the “New Collection of Tried Prescriptions,” a sort of domestic medicine published for the use of families in cases of emergency when no physician is at hand, we find the following remarks:—

Method for Extracting Aching Teeth.

“A tooth ought not to be taken out, for by doing so the remaining teeth will be loosened. If the pain is very acute and interferes with eating or drinking, then the tooth may be extracted; otherwise, it should be left. Take a bream about ten ounces in weight, rip it open and insert 1/10 of an ounce of powdered arsenic. Then sew up the body and hang it up in the wind where it is not exposed to the sun or accessible to cats and rats. After being thus hung for seven days, a kind of hoar-frost will have formed upon the scales of the fish. Preserve this, using for each tooth about as much as covers one scale. When required, spread it on a piece of any kind of plaster, press it with the finger on to the aching place, and let it stick there. Then let the patient cough, and the tooth will fall out of itself. This prescription has been tested by Dr. Wang.”

Another Method.

“Take a head of garlic and pound it up to a pulp. Mix it up thoroughly with one or two candareens’ weight of white dragon’s bones, and apply it to the suffering part. In a little while the tooth will drop out.”

It will be noticed that the above descriptions are neither without one or other of two characteristics always to be found in the composition of Chinese remedies. In the first recipe, the ingredients are simple enough, and all this is required is time, seven days being necessary for its preparation. Now, as it is very unlikely that any one would collect the “hoar-frost” deposit from the scales of a bream stuffed with arsenic, in anticipation of a future toothache, and as he would probably have got well long before the expiration of the seven days if he set to work to make his medicine only when the tooth began to ache, the genius of the physician and the efficacy of the recipe are alike secure from attack. In the second case, the very existence of one of the drugs mentioned is, to say the least, apocryphal; and although such can be purchased at the shops of native druggists, any complaint on the part of a duped patient would be met by the simple answer, that the white dragon’s bones he bought could not possibly have been genuine!

A few days after the above incident, we returned to the dentist’s stall, and asked him if he had any powder that would draw out a tooth by mere application to the gum or to the tooth itself? He replied that such a powder certainly existed, and was commonly manufactured in all parts of China, but that he himself was out of it at the moment. He added, that if we would call again on the 4th of the 4th moon, before 12 o’clock in the day, he should be in a position to satisfy our demands.

In conclusion, we append a quotation from the China Review, which appeared in print after our own sketch was written:—

“Despite the oft-repeated assertion as to painless, or at least easy, dentistry in China, very few people seem prepared to admit that teeth are constantly extracted in the way described by (I think) a former correspondent of the Review. He stated that a white powder was rubbed on the gums of the patient, after which the tooth was easily pulled from its socket; and this I can substantiate, noting, however, that the action of the powder (corrosive sublimate) is not quite so rapid as represented. A short time since I witnessed an operation of this kind. The operator rubbed the powder on the gum as described, but then directed the patient to wait a little. After perhaps ten minutes’ interval, he again rubbed the gum, and then, introducing his thumb into the mouth, pressed heavily against the tooth (which was a large molar). The man winced for a second as I heard the ‘click’ of the separation, but almost before he could cry out, the dentist gripped the tooth with his forefinger and thumb, and with very little violence pulled it out. The gum bled considerably, and I examined the tooth so as to satisfy myself that there was no deception. It had an abscess at the root of the fang, and was undoubtedly what it professed to be. When the operation was over, the patient washed his mouth out with cold water, paid fifteen cash and departed.”


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