Spanish doctor carves out career in traditional Chinese medicine
By Magdalena Rojas  ·  2023-06-02  ·   Source: NO.23 JUNE 8, 2023
Cristóbal Minguez, a native of the Basque region in north Spain, with his family following his graduation from the Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province (COURTESY PHOTO)

'It all started with an 'I do'!" Cristóbal Minguez, a native of the Basque region in north Spain, said of his first encounter with China. The year was 2005, when a friend asked him if he wanted to take a trip to China. Although the adventure was a brief one, barely two weeks, it would become a turning point not only in his career, but in his life. "The last day, right before returning to Spain, I emptied out my backpack and stuffed it with souvenirs," he recalled. "But what I didn't know was that something else had made its way into that bag, a seed that was about to sprout."

As soon as he arrived back in Spain, where he was leading a quiet and comfortable life working for world-leading food company Danone Group, Minguez enrolled at a Confucius Institute as a student in hopes of broadening his knowledge about China.

Confucius Institutes, named after ancient Chinese philosopher and educator Confucius (551-479 B.C.), serve as nonprofit public institutions to help foreigners better understand China by teaching Chinese language and culture at universities in their host countries.

"I found out about the institute, I enrolled and one week later I began studying the Chinese language," Minguez said. Despite having already considered switching careers, his decision wasn't made lightly. "The question was: Leave my job at a prestigious multinational or jump into the unknown and let myself get carried away on a hunch, namely, the desire to find my true path and vocation," he added.

Throwback to student life 

Minguez said coming across traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) was like "love at first sight." Thanks to the influence of his mother, a certified lymphatic therapist who has been running a massage center in Spain for 40 years, the concepts of defining and preserving health have always been present in his life. However, TCM represented something very different that captivated him from the get-go.

And so, he decided to leave his comfort zone and, packing great dreams, landed in China once again in 2007. During the following two years in the country, Minguez wholly immersed himself in studying the Chinese language at the prestigious Peking University, and then continued his undergraduate studies at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine from 2009 to 2012.

As this first stage was nearing its conclusion, Minguez once again faced a life-defining dilemma. He had applied for a master's degree at two universities, one in Tianjin Municipality, a little over 130 km from Beijing, and one in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province in the south, and had been accepted to both. "One night, at 2 a.m., I took out a blank piece of paper and started writing down the pros and cons of each school. After a few hours, I'd made my decision. And so I packed up my things, called a taxi and at 7 a.m. stood at the airport and got a ticket for the earliest possible Guangzhou-bound flight," he recalled, adding, "My objective was clear: to become a TCM doctor."

According to Minguez, most Chinese medicine universities like those in Beijing, Tianjin and Nanjing in Jiangsu Province are more focused on research. At the Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine, on the other hand, the study focuses on a functional approach based on trial and error. "Like life itself," he said.

Over the course of his master's degree, and later a Ph.D., Minguez worked closely with TCM schools both in Spain and several Latin American countries, including Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. In addition, in 2014 he took matters to the next level by creating the world's first Spanish-language TCM hospital internship program.

Minguez during a cupping therapy session at his clinic in Guangzhou. Cupping is a form of alternative medicine in which a therapist puts heated cups on a patient's skin for a few minutes to create suction. People receive it for many purposes, including helping with chronic pain, inflammation and overall wellbeing (COURTESY PHOTO)

Clinic duty 

Throughout his China journey, Minguez has achieved many successes, which have always gone hand in hand with great dedication and effort. "I have one flaw: I never say no to an interesting challenge," he explained. This perseverance is precisely what has opened doors in his career, from his beginnings as a house call doctor to the present, as the head of two renowned Guangzhou-based clinics.

It all started when his sister-in-law called him in search of an alternative treatment that would relieve the discomfort she was experiencing when breastfeeding her newborn baby. Minguez began giving her acupuncture, which proved highly effective. This in turn became the catalyst for a growing number of people with various disorders or ailments to start calling him. "Within a week of embarking on my career as a TCM doctor in China, I already had months of work lined up," he continued.

At first, Minguez performed house calls, but demand soared to the point where he decided to open a practice in his living room. But this, too, soon proved insufficient to care for all the people coming in and so he went on to set up a full-fledged clinic. Today, he runs two such centers: a 300-square-meter one inside a renovated house in the city center and another one inside a hospital that offers sports therapy and rehabilitation services. 

Both establishments offer a range of TCM treatments, including spinal alignment, specific stretching exercises and functional training sessions, a type of exercise that looks like movements people make in daily life.

In addition to all this, Minguez developed a line of probiotic teas to regulate patients' intestinal flora. The Spanish native added that in recent years, he has seen thousands of patients with digestive disorders. "Constipation, allergies and inflammatory processes all have a common denominator: digestive disorders," he said. "After all, we are what we eat."

Although Minguez works in a field deeply rooted in China's history and culture, he never considers this an obstacle. "The Chinese are fascinated when a foreigner is interested in their culture," he said.

Originally, Minguez had no intention of staying in China, let alone for 16 years. For this reason, when asked about his future plans, he never rules out living in another part of the world where he can continue developing as a professional, but he prefers to wait and see what fate has in store for him; he chooses to follow his gut. For the time being, his efforts focus on improving people's quality of life as well as their mind-body balance, just like the ancient Chinese recommended doing thousands of years ago.

(Print Edition Title: A Gut Feeling)

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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