Simmered seahorse and boiled bat droppings are just some of the ingredients the oldest and largest maker of traditional Chinese medicine is hoping to mix into potions that will sell on the shelves of drug stores in Europe and the United States. That goal will be assisted by the greater international exposure afforded the Tong Ren Tang Group by the recent move of its subsidiary, Tong Ren Tang Technologies, to the main board of the Hong Kong stock exchange, after a decade on the Growth Enterprise Market, the board for smaller companies. In a speech to mark the move, Mei Qun , vice-president and general manager of the group, said last week: 'The challenge we face now is to enlarge market share in European countries and the US.' The company, a household name across China, is nothing if not experienced when it comes to the preparation of the exotic ingredients and the countless more mundane herbs and dried plants that are used to cure ailments from the common cold to gastroenteritis or rheumatism. The brand has weathered the vagaries of the nation's modern history - the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the Japanese invasion, the civil war and then the many policy reversals under Mao Zedong when business was encouraged, then reviled, and finally re-emerged with the reappearance of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. When Le Xianyang set up his first drug store in southern Beijing in 1669, he could not have foreseen that he was destined to build one of the country's most famous brands. His shop quickly gained a reputation as a reputable supplier of medicine. Le was a strict taskmaster, extremely picky about the quality of the treatments he sold. His fame spread. In 1723 he achieved the greatest possible recognition - the Yongzheng Emperor appointed Tong Ren Tang as the official supplier of medicine to the imperial court. It did not take long for the shop to build a strong position in the market across the nation. It served eight Qing dynasty emperors over 188 years and its position as chief court supplier ended only with the death of the dynasty in 1911. Tong Ren Tang's first two and a half centuries in business saw steady growth, but it confronted its greatest challenges in the next few decades as it rode China's post-imperial maelstrom. The Le family clung to their business through the half-century that followed the end of the empire. They even retained ownership of their shops after the 1949 communist takeover. But communist ideology could not allow private enterprise to flourish. In 1954 the government began to nationalise private businesses. Tong Ren Tang, a brand known across the country, was an obvious target and one of the first companies forcibly nationalised. Over the next few years, the government gradually bought Tong Ren Tang, paying the Le clan meagre compensation and transforming the ancient family firm into a totally state-owned company. Most of the family left the mainland for Taiwan in 1949. The authorities rewarded those who remained for their co-operation during nationalisation. They appointed one senior member of the clan, Le Songsheng , to the high-profile position of vice-mayor of Beijing in 1955. But he was to suffer for this success. When the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966, he was called a reactionary and tortured to death two years later. During those chaotic years, even the wooden board on which TRT's name was engraved, a plaque that had survived numerous revolutions and wars over the previous 300 years, was smashed by furious Red Guards. But Tong Ren Tang would rise from the ashes - even without the Le family. When pro-market economic reforms were implemented in the late 1970s, the low efficiency of state-owned enterprises was widely criticised. Beijing made a U-turn and began to encourage private businesses. For the Le family, it was too late. But not for their brand. TRT was turned into a modern enterprise named the Tong Ren Tang Group in 1992 and was listed on the Shanghai A-share market in 1997. The TRT Group now has more than 1,200 stores on the mainland, and many still play on the company's history to win customers. The stores are often marked by old-style red pillars at the entrance and even the interiors retain vestiges of traditional Qing-style architecture. The firm has also expanded into 15 countries and regions, opening a total of 38 overseas stores. Its nine production bases, including one in Tai Po, are producing thousands of tonnes of Chinese medicine by steaming, roasting, baking and frying herbs and countless other natural ingredients every year. These are exported to more than 40 countries. In the first half of the year, TRT exported medicine worth US$17 million, an increase of 10.75 per cent on the same period last year. A spokeswoman for the company attributed the expansion to growing global interest in natural and herbal medicine. In the first six months of the year, TRT Group sales amounted to 6.7 billion yuan (HK$7.67 billion), a 22 per cent rise year on year. Net profit was 631 million yuan, up by 19.8 per cent. The group now makes more than 400 kinds of medicine and has total assets of 10.2 billion yuan. Taking its business abroad was not one of the early goals of the company. It wasn't until 2000 that Tong Ren Tang Technologies was hived off from the parent company for the purpose of catering to the overseas market. In the past decade, TRT has also been working in close co-operation with Li Ka-shing's Hutchison Whampoa, hoping the latter's extensive network of pharmacies will promote traditional Chinese medicine to the developed world. However, until now the exports have mostly gone to Southeast Asian countries. Cultural barriers emerge beyond Asia, where few people understand and accept the complex Chinese medical philosophy of yin-yang about balance within the human body and which is the core of traditional Chinese medicine. Liu Zhengcai , a famous doctor of traditional Chinese medicine in Chengdu , Sichuan , said: 'Going abroad is very difficult for Chinese medicine.' He thinks the main difficulty is that foreigners cannot understand the traditional Chinese medical theories, and considers it a mission impossible to explain these concepts in English. Another obstacle is the complicated modern standards set for quality and safety of ingredients. 'If you judge Chinese medicine according to the standards of Western medicine, you won't get satisfactory results. But this is what they are doing,' Liu said. Many herbal medicines carry traces of heavy metals absorbed from the earth during their growth. TRT said Westerners were more inclined to accept acupuncture than traditional medicine, and it was very difficult to get them to swallow doses of bitter traditional herbal medicine - often stewed directly from the ingredients in special earthenware pots. The group has signed an agreement with Hanban, more popularly known as the Confucius Institute, to train doctors who can introduce Chinese medicine in English, as part of the institute's comprehensive campaign to promote Chinese culture around the world. One of TRT's most popular products among mainlanders is Angong cow's gallstone pills, which as well as the bovine ingredient includes powdered buffalo horn, powdered pearl and a secretion from the male water deer. The pills are given to patients who faint suddenly or who suffer hysterical fits. It will be difficult to persuade Europeans and Americans to adopt such a medicine, but TRT is still optimistic about its plans for overseas expansion. The company is coy about the details of its future growth. It underscores its close ties with the state by stressing that future plans will be included in the government's 12th five-year plan, to be unveiled next year. Still, Mei told domestic media: 'Our plan is to set up 100 overseas stores.' This month another TRT store will open in Central, taking the number of outlets in Hong Kong to more than 10. Mei said that with the use of Western technology, it was possible to extract the active ingredients from herbal medicine. They could then be delivered in pills or capsules, so patients no longer had to drink the paraffin-tasting brown soup of traditional Chinese medicine. Pills or capsules were more compatible with Western practice and more convenient to carry and use than herbal brews. Mei said extracting ingredients and putting them in solid form made it much easier for Chinese medicine to break into Western markets. Australian regulatory authorities had already accredited products from eight production lines in TRT's Beijing factories for use. A spokeswoman for TRT, who declined to be named, said: 'If you measure traditional Chinese medicine with Western standards, it is a blind alley. I can't write down the molecular formula of every ingredient of our medicine. But it doesn't mean our medicine is not good.' On the domestic front, the outlook is mixed. Sceptics worry that substandard herbs, unregulated ingredients and inexperienced doctors are damaging the name of traditional Chinese medicine. Mainlanders are turning in growing numbers to Western hospitals, as traditional practices are increasingly regarded more as alternative therapy, often for chronic illnesses such as recurrent psoriasis or for hopeless cases such as terminal cancer. But TRT believes the traditional way is deeply ingrained in the Chinese system and will not disappear. Paradoxically, another trend is emerging: the country's new rich and the growing middle class are flocking to Chinese medicine masters, taking bitter doses of thick herbal drinks or paying high prices for acupuncture treatment in the hope of enhancing their quality of life. Liu said: 'Chinese medicine has its advantages in dealing with sub-healthy symptoms and chronic disease. I think the science of traditional medicine will always have its own space.' He noted that, under the pressures of modern society, an increasing number of people were suffering from insomnia, headaches and lack of appetite, or feeling tired and depressed. A lot more patients with such symptoms had been seeing him in recent years in the belief that Western medicine could not help them. Another good sign for TRT is Beijing's goal of providing 95 per cent of the nation's 1.3 billion people with basic health care. The central government has announced spending of 850 billion yuan on health care improvements this year and next year. According to the plan, all traditional Chinese medicine and treatments will be covered by the health system. This is very important for a nation that is rapidly ageing, and one in which the social insurance system in rural areas is extremely basic. Medical costs are high and the mainland still lacks effective universal health care. That means the cheaper traditional Chinese prescriptions are still far more accessible for the poor - who literally cannot afford to fall ill - as they try to maintain their health. The price of the humble green bean tripled between January and May this year after self-styled Chinese medicine master Zhang Wuben said it was the best medicine for staying healthy. The price rocketed from six yuan per kilogram to 20 yuan in four months. Zhang's followers boil 2.5kg of green beans and drink the soup every day, believing it to be the most effective and affordable health tonic. TRT is jumping on the bandwagon. It has tailored a series of capsules and pills catering to the young and the middle class. The newest product is a form of ejiao - an essence simmered from donkey skin. A new factory to be built in Tangshan , near Beijing, will research and develop new products such as ejiao. The first phase of the investment is 70 million yuan. The TRT spokeswoman said ejiao was widely recognised among Chinese so it would be easy to market the new product. TRT had always produced ejiao products, but in the past they had been sold as medicine; now they would be marketed as a tonic for women and the elderly for their blood and qi, or energy flow. 'With the improvement of living standards, this market will be huge,' the spokeswoman said. But Liu said most Chinese customers still preferred to drink a bitter herbal tea rather than take a pill or capsule. 'The doctor chooses each herb for you; the prescription is unique for you.' He likened drinking a herbal tea to having clothes tailor-made, while taking pills was more like buying clothes off the rack. But he noted that his customers' top concern was not the price, but the medicine's efficacy. 'The most important factor is the effect of the medicine.' Xie Ying , an accountant living in Beijing, goes to see her traditional Chinese doctor every other weekend. The 36-year-old believes she is 'weak in the blood', because her hands and feet often feel cold. After seeing the doctor for six months, she says her condition noticeably improved. 'I sleep better too. Spending some money on your health is worth it. Girls should be nice to themselves.'