A Brief History of Chinese Medicine: The Beginning

Old City of Fu Zhou

Many people with chronic headaches take pain killers almost daily. But a report from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence in the United Kingdom asserts that taking too many pain killers is actually making your headaches worse. The guidelines define overuse of pain medication for more than 15 days out of the month.

Types of chronic headaches include migraine headachestension headaches, and cluster headaches among others. What happens is your nervous system becomes accustom to the medication, and eventually it requires more and more medication for pain relief. But taking more of the medication may actually lead to another more intense headache. This can lead to a cycle of headaches and pain relievers causing more headaches.

The guidelines suggest that the best thing to do is stop taking the medications and work to prevent the headaches with treatments such as acupuncture.

What Causes Disease in Chinese Medicine?

Originally, disease theory in China was based upon a shamanistic view that illness was caused by evil spirits. The first record we have of healers in China dates back to the Shang dynasty, 1600-1046 BCE.  The religion of the day was ancestor worship.  They believed the living and the dead lived side by side. The living worked hard to worship and please their ancestors.  If not, one’s dead relatives will seek revenge, causing every tragedy known to man, including illnesses.

In order to pacify their ancestor’s wrath, people would follow extensive rituals of praise and sacrifice.  If someone became sick, they would hire a Shaman who interpreted oracles and communicated with the dead in order to appease one’s ancestors. During later tumultuous political times, these benevolent ancestors transformed into demons, who were only controlled through the Shamen.

Personal responsibility, nor any means of physical treatment, were not considered factors for good health.

Later, in the Qin and Han dynasties, we see a change in the dominant Chinese world view.  During this time, the Chinese were gaining control of their surroundings, the feudal wars were concluded, and a united Chinese government emerged. Many naturalistic philosophies developed based upon the balance of the universe, such as the yin-yang and five phase theory.

Confucianism also developed during this period which strongly espoused a code of ethics based on propriety, ritual, and hierarchy. Each individual within society, from the peasant farmer to the king, has a specific role to fulfill, and if everybody fulfilled these roles, society would function well.

An Evolving Medicine Over Time

Much of Chinese medicine which is still used today developed during this time period. Instead of demons or ancestors causing illness, the pathogenic influences from the natural world (wind, dampness, heat, dryness) or imbalances within the individuals result in disease. Health was maintained by a proper balance of yin and yang and the five phases within the body.

These ideas lead to the use of preventative medicine. Measures such as staying out of the cold and wind and practicing moderation were utilized. In cases of illness, physicians developed treatments using herbs, acupuncture, and massage.

In certain ways, we are seeing a similar pattern happening in modern medicine.  The idea that good habits and preventative medicinecan help you live longer and better are becoming popular.  The old ideas that you have no control over your own health are dying.

Now we are turning back towards ideas that Chinese Medicine developed over 2000 years ago. Physicians and patients are looking towards holistic techniques in healing and now believe you can actively improve your own health.

Photo: Library of Congress

Joseph Alban

Joseph Alban, L.Ac.

Joseph Alban is a Doctor of Acupuncture, New York Licensed Acupuncturist, and NCCAOM Board Certified Herbalist providing the highest quality Acupuncture and Chinese medicine care tailored to your needs.

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