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In the space of a few weeks, Zhang Gongyao has gone from little-known scholar of medical history to one of China's most notorious intellectuals.

Once accustomed to a low-key life at a provincial university in southern China, he now feels he must avoid the news media and is nervous even about walking the streets in case he is recognized.

It's all because he dared to question one of his country's most cherished beliefs: Chinese traditional medicine.

Mr. Zhang's comments have provoked a storm of protests and a national debate. He has been cursed on websites, denounced as a traitor and subjected to scornful attacks by the Chinese government.

This is a country where traditional medicine has become a patriotic symbol. It is enshrined in the country's constitution, taught in universities and protected by government agencies. It has become a $10-billion (U.S.) industry - representing a quarter of the entire medical system - with an estimated 300 million customers every year.

Even in Western countries, traditional Chinese medicine has become fashionable as an alternative to mainstream health care.

Acupuncture and herbal remedies are increasingly popular in Canada and the United States.

Yet despite all the forces against him, Mr. Zhang has dared to challenge the establishment. He has warned that traditional medicine is often unscientific, unreliable, dangerous, a threat to endangered species and even fatal to humans in some cases.

Mr. Zhang, a professor at Central South University in Hunan province who has been studying medical history for more than 30 years, is urging the government to stop promoting traditional medicine. He has launched an online petition to seek its removal from the constitution and the official medical system. And he wants China's traditional-medicine practitioners to get mainstream medical training.

"From the viewpoint of science, Chinese traditional medicine has neither an empirical nor a rational foundation," he wrote in an article that ignited a furor when it found its way onto China's Internet. "It is a threat to biodiversity. And it often uses poisons and waste as remedies. So we have enough reasons to bid farewell to it."

In fact, there is strong evidence to support his concerns. British health officials recently warned that Chinese herbal remedies can contain poisonous plant extracts and toxic ingredients such as arsenic, mercury and asbestos. One herbal remedy has an ingredient that is reportedly linked to bladder cancer and kidney damage. And another Chinese herb, ephedra, was banned by Health Canada after it was suspected of links to heart attacks and strokes.

But this evidence was of little interest to Mr. Zhang's enemies, who condemned him for "betraying" the Chinese people. Websites sprouted with insulting attacks on the professor. Even the government jumped into the fray.

A spokesman for the Chinese Health Ministry, Mao Qunan, accused the professor of being "ignorant of history." At a news conference in Beijing, Mr. Mao seized on patriotic arguments to criticize the professor. "Traditional Chinese medicine, being among the quintessence and treasures of Chinese culture, represents many of her salient features and superiority," he said. "It is an inseparable and indispensable part of China's medical and health-care system, just as it has contributed so much to the development of our nation during China's long history."

Another government agency, the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine, was equally fierce in its attacks on Mr. Zhang. "The farce of going against our ancestors should stop," the agency said. "The online petition, due to its anti-historical and anti-scientific nature, has caused outrage from people involved in the traditional Chinese medicine sector. It's also certain to receive strong opposition from the public."

On the Chinese Internet, Mr. Zhang was denounced as an "ignorant crazy person" and a "clown." A survey on a popular website found that 90 per cent of respondents were opposed to a ban on traditional medicine. "Zhang Gongyao, are you Chinese?" one citizen demanded on an Internet forum. "Farewell to traditional medicine means farewell to our ancestors."

Many Chinese people have huge faith in traditional medicine, often going to great lengths to obey its strictures. The Chinese news media recently reported that a man in Jilin province has been astonishing his neighbours by walking like a bear in a park every morning for the past several years because a traditional medicine doctor had advised him that a bear-like gait would cure him of heart disease and hypertension.

The attacks may be vitriolic, but Mr. Zhang has triggered an important debate in Chinese society. It has revealed that many Chinese feel distrustful of traditional medicine, especially as their country moves into the global mainstream.

The professor won a surprising amount of support on some Chinese websites. One person commented that traditional medicine needs to prove itself scientifically, or else it should be dismissed as witchcraft. Another person, a medical student, said she wished her university would stop teaching traditional medicine, which she regarded as mythology.

Chinese newspapers pointed out that China has about 270,000 traditional-medicine practitioners today, far fewer than 800,000 in the early 20th century. Meanwhile, the number of physicians trained in Western medicine has soared from 87,000 in the early 20th century to about 1.75 million today.

"If the government wants people to trust traditional medicine, it must make a greater effort to prove the reliability and scientific basis of traditional medicine," the respected newspaper Southern Daily commented. "Otherwise, traditional medicine will keep declining every day."

As for Mr. Zhang, he is confident that his arguments will eventually win the day. "Step by step, the scholars will enlighten the masses," he said.

His only regret is the notoriety that the debate has brought him. "I don't like to be a famous person. I'm anxiously awaiting the end of the controversy on the Internet. It brings me too much stress."