Ginkgo Leaves
Ginkgo Leaves

A Brief History of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Ideological Foundation & Influences
Confucianism & Taoism in Early Eastern Culture
The Birth & Growth of Acupuncture
Origins, Evolution, & Westward Expansion
The Literature of Chinese Medicine
Classic Works of Internal & External Medicine

Ideological Foundation & Influences

Confucianism & Taoism in Early Eastern Culture

Early eastern culture founded the philosophy of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) with considerable influence from the principles of Confucian and Taoist ideology. Confucianism dominated every aspect of eastern society, from everyday customs to the social hierarchy of China. It elevated the emperor to divine status and established a feudal and totalitarian system of government. While less influential on society than Confuciansim, however, the principles of Taoism impacted the growth of TCM even more than Confucianism did.

Confucian ideology emphasizes the need to preserve the wholeness of the body throughout life and death. Hence, it condemns the study of anatomy and surgical practices. Instead, alternative forms of medicine — chiefly, acupuncture and herbal medicines — became the mainstream modes of medical treatment. Because such methods treat illnesses without mutilating the structure of the body, they were exalted by society as the ideal approaches to medicine.

Taoist ideology describes the universe as a collection of interdependent yet polar natural forces, a fundamental principle represented by the symbol of Yin and Yang. Human beings, therefore, can only achieve ideal health through perfect harmony with the natural forces surrounding him. All principles of TCM were founded and developed according to this central belief. Furthermore, Taoism promoted the art of detailed observation, inspiring rapid progress in the understanding of bodily organs, acupuncture channels, herbal medicine, and much more.

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The Birth & Growth of Acupuncture

Origins, Evolution, & Westward Expansion

Archaeological discoveries of stone needles several thousand years old have placed the origins of acupuncture in the Neolithic era (c. 8,000 BCE - 2,000 BCE), the New Stone Age. The exact circumstances surrounding the conception of acupuncture remain uncertain, and for several thousand years, stone needles would remain the traditional instrument of acupuncture, even into the Shang dynasty (1,600 to 1,046 BCE) despite the emergence of bronze needles in that era.

Only by the Warring States period (475 BCE - 221 BCE) did gold and silver needles eventually replace those made of stone. Meanwhile, famous works such as Huang Di Nei Jing (Yellow Emperor’s Canon on Internal Medicine) and Nan Jing (Book of Difficult Questions) reflected on ideas such as the circulation of Qi along channels of the body and the methods of manipulating Qi circulation with acupuncture. Collectively, the knowledge imparted in these influential works describe the system of acupuncture channels and points in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

The growing appeal of traditional Chinese medicine in the West began with the arrival of acupuncture in France in the early twentieth century. By the 1950s, acupuncture gained popularity throughout all of Europe, although America remained ignorant of acupuncture until Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. The number of practitioners in the United States grew rapidly following the legalization of acupuncture practiced by non-medical doctors in Washington, D.C. Twenty oriental doctors from New York were soon treating over 250 patients each day. Today, there are more than 3,000,000 acupuncturists worldwide.

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The Literature of Chinese Medicine

Classic Works of Internal & External Medicine

The earliest work to influence the philosophy of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) may be I-Ching (Book of Change). An intricate philosophical work, I-Ching was speculated to have been authored by a legendary emperor named Fu Xi (c. 2,850 BCE - 2,750 BCE), who also established the laws of humanity for his once anarchic subjects. According to legend, from his observations of nature, Fu Xi conceived the eight trigrams and subsequently the sixty-four hexagrams that form the basis of I-Ching. The concepts of Yin and Yang and of the Five Elements in TCM are all drawn from Fu Xu’s I-Ching.

Huang Di Nei Jing (Yellow Emperor’s Canon on Internal Medicine) — considered to be the earliest and most celebrated masterpiece of TCM — documents the emperor Huang Di’s discourse with his distinguished physician Qi Bo. Through this discourse, the text illustrates the means to establish harmony with nature to achieve wellbeing throughout life. Although historical records confirm the existence of an emperor named Huang Di (c. 2,700 BCE - 2,600 BCE), scholars have discovered that the discourse recorded in Huang Di Nei Jing, actually written circa 300-200 BCE, may have been authored by an anonymous group of physicians. Nevertheless, the wisdom conveyed by Huang Di Nei Jing remains an invaluable resource for practitioners of TCM today.

Similarly found to be written by a group of anonymous physicians is Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (Shen Nong’s Canon on Materia Medica), an accurate and important reference nonetheless. The legend accompanying this work tells of a legendary herbalist and farmer named Shen Nong. To document the healing properties of wild herbs, legend tells that he sampled nearly one hundred wild herbs daily, including both medicinal and poisonous ones. Though he is said to have possessed an antidotal tea for the poisonous herbs ingested, he died after failing to drink it in time after one of his samplings. Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing was composed in the Spring and Autumn period (c. 770 BCE - 476 BCE), and documents approximately 365 herbs.

Li Shi Zhen (1518 CE - 1593 CE), a historical figure of the Ming dynasty, may be described as the real-life incarnation of the legend of Shen Nong. For twenty-seven years, from early 1552 to late 1578, he meticulously studied and documented detailed descriptions of wild herbs, often sampling them himself. He compiled the sum of his knowledge into the famous work known as Ben Cao Gan Mu (Encyclopedia of Materia Medica). His masterpiece — fifty-two volumes in length with nearly 2,000 illustrations and 11,000 prescriptions — documents 1,892 herbs, detailing their every property and application in medicine.

The earliest and most valuable work on the techniques of treatment in TCM may be Shang Han Lun (Treatise on Febrile Diseases), authored by a renowned herbalist named Zhang Zhong Jing (150 CE - 219 CE). His work serves as an essential reference on the practices of TCM, including acupuncture, herbal medicine, moxibustion, and more. The most significant contribution of Zhang Zhong Jing’s composition, however, may be its classification of diseases into six “channels” by which all illnesses can be diagnosed. Shang Han Lun also serves as an invaluable guide for TCM practitioners in the interpretion of a patient’s pulse and in the determination of the appropriate herbal treatment.

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