A Brief History of Chinese Medicine: The Beginning

Old City of Fu Zhou

Acupuncture and Chinese medicine have roots over 3000 years old.  The oldest known book of Chinese medicine is from 2500 years ago and is called the Huang Di Nei Jing, which translates to the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic. Much of that theory still influences acupuncture and Chinese medicine.

The birth of the Chinese medicine tradition occurred when the Chinese developed the viewpoint that disease is caused by forces in the natural world.  And through the healthy choices, we can influence our own health.  This post is based upon ideas from Paul Unschuld’s fabulous book, Medicine in China.

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, L.Ac.
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