Some guidebook writers and journalists claim it was the ego of a diminutive herbalist in a small ethnic village in the mountains of south-west China that turned him into a world-famous tourist attraction. However, when examining the life trajectory of He Shixiu, better known as Dr Ho, it was foreign media and overseas tourists who were largely responsible for creating the ‘must-visit’ doctor and sage, who died recently aged 95.

While the esteemed doctor fell short of his 100th birthday target, his life took a turn for the better when he was 62 years old, the age most consider retiring. English-speaking Dr Ho rose to prominence after being featured in a New York Times article by travel writer Bruce Chatwin in 1986.

Since being thrust into the limelight and then listed as an attraction in every guidebook, the self-made doctor received over 100,000 patients and guests, including celebrities, dignitaries, royalty and journalists. He became the most-written-about Chinese doctor in the world, the subject of over a thousand articles in more than 50 languages. Did that attention go to his head? Perhaps, it did.

Nakhi-minority He Shixiu taught himself traditional Chinese medicine to help recover from tuberculosis contracted in 1949 while serving with the army, shortly after graduating. Returning home, he studied the healing properties of plants found in the Tibetan borderlands of Yunnan province and began treating people’s ailments from his home at 2,500 metres (8,200 feet) above sea level. 

Labelled a ‘counter-revolutionary’ in the late 1950s, he was sent to ‘re-education’ camps and had to forage for food in the hills. He lost most of his teeth. He would have lost his medical and botanical books to the rampaging Red Guards, had he not hidden them under the floorboards.

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Herbal Clinic 

It was only following the 1978 Open Door Policy of Deng Xiaoping, that the ‘rehabilitated’ doctor was granted a licence to practice. In 1985 he set up the ‘Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Herbal Clinic’ in Baisha village, near Lijiang.

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Dr Ho treats a patient. Photo: Keith Lyons

China’s opening up and the lifting of foreign travel restrictions in the mid-1980s saw intrepid travellers make it to the cobblestone and canal town of Lijiang, and to Dr Ho’s village. One of the first foreigners to visit was writer Bruce Chatwin, who attended a christening banquet for Dr Ho’s grandson, writing up the encounter for the New York Times as ‘In China, Rock’s Kingdom’, published in 1986. At that time, Lijiang and the Nakhi minority were virtually unknown to the outside world.

Chatwin had been on a quest to find any traces of National Geographic explorer and botanist Joseph Rock, who lived nearby for more than three decades. Dr Ho’s father had worked for the eccentric Austrian-American, and Dr Ho had learnt English from the Sinophile as well as US Flying Tiger signalmen based in his village during the Second World War.

From Chatwin’s article, word-of-mouth recommendations, and guidebook listings, visitors were soon seeking out the English-speaking doctor. Sometimes the outgoing doctor would stop visitors in the main street of Baisha and introduce himself as the ‘famous Doctor Ho’.

“Yes, he was a shameless self-publicist, but he was not a fake,” says ‘In the footsteps of Joseph Rock’ (www.josephrock.net) researcher Michael Woodhead, who first met the doctor when he was already on the tourist radar in the early 1990s. “He was one of a few colorful local personalities who spoke English and welcomed Western tourists who were otherwise bewildered by a very foreign China.”

The international reputation of the doctor, as both a healer and a character, was further enhanced when adventurer and actor Michael Palin called in on Dr Ho for the ‘Himalaya’ series which the BBC screened in 2004. “He was a charming man to spend time with,” Palin emailed me from the UK after I had told him news of the doctor’s death in September.

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Dr Ho in his latter years. Photo: Keith Lyons

It was only since the turn of the century that the doctor gained more recognition and commendation within China.

“Before, I was a nobody,” he told me one time as I sipped on his medicinal ‘Happy Tea’. Despite the attention and Dr Ho’s frequent reference to the many accolades and endorsements, he saw his work as just continuing what his father had done.

“It is not about how great I am, but about how great the herbs and traditional Chinese medicines are.”

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is a travel writer originally from New Zealand. He founded the Lijiang Earthquake Relief Project in 1996 and lived in Lijiang for a dozen years, establishing the travel operation Lijiang Guides (www.lijiangtravel.info), and was a long-time friend of Dr Ho.