Chinese Medicine : A Brief History


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    According to legend, the origins of traditional Chinese medicine are traced back to Fu Xi and Shen Nong, who were believed to be early tribal leaders. Fu Xi was a cultural hero who developed the trigrams of Yi Jing (I Ching) or Book of Changes. Ancient texts record that “Fu Xi drew the eight trigrams, and created nine needles.” Shen Nong, the legendary emperor who lived 5,000 years ago, is hailed as the “Divine Cultivator”/”Divine Farmer” by the Chinese people. He is attributed as the founder of herbal medicine. To determine the nature of different herbal medicines, Shen Nong sampled various kinds of plants, ingesting them himself for to test and analyze their individual effects. According to the ancient texts, Shen Nong tasted a hundred herbs, including 70 toxic substances in a single day, in order to eliminate people’s pain from illness. As there were no written records, it is said that the discoveries of Shen Nong were passed down verbally from generation to generation.

    Legend says that, as a result of a dialogue with his physician Qibo, the Yellow Emperor Huang-di (2697-2597 BCE) composed The Huangdi Neijing (Inner Cannon of Huangdi), which often is mistranslated as Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. Modern scholars believe, however, that the text was compiled from ancient sources by a scholar living between 800 and 200 BCE. Nonetheless, this oldest medical textbook in the world documents the primary foundation for the theories of Chinese medicine, summarizing and systemizing the previous experience of treatment and theories of medicine.

    Zhang Zhongjing (150-219 CE), the most famous of China’s ancient herbal doctors, lived during the Eastern Han dynasty. He was one of the most eminent Chinese physicians. He established medication principles and summarized the medicinal experience up until that time. He wrote a masterful discourse on how to treat epidemic infectious diseases causing fevers prevalent during his era. His book, Treatise on Febrile Diseases, is still used as a standard reference work for traditional Chinese medicine, including moxibustion, needling and herbal medicine. Hua Tuo (140-208 AD) was the first of the Taoist physicians. He developed/invented the use of anesthesia called Mafei San, and furthered the limited Chinese knowledge of anatomy. He was the first person who used narcotic drugs in the world and his skill in this field was ahead of the West by 1,700 years.

    During the Middle Ages, Emperor Gaozong (649-683) commissioned a scholarly compilation that documented 833 medicinal substances taken from stones, minerals, metals, plants, herbs, animals, vegetables, fruits and cereal crops. The scholar-official Su Song (1020-1101) systematically categorized herbs and minerals according to their pharmaceutical uses. Li Shizhen, (1518-1593) was one of the greatest physician and pharmacologist of the Ming dynasty. His major contribution to medicine was his epic book Ben Cao Gang-mu (The Compendium of Materia Medica). The text contains 1.9 million Chinese characters and details more than 1,800 drugs, including 1,100 illustrations and 11,000 prescriptions, as well as record of 1,094 herbs, detailing their type, form, flavor, nature and application in treatment.

    The Revolution of 1911 saw the beginning of the People’s Republic of China. During this time China developed a desire to modernize, and its people began to turn to Western medicine. The government of the time proposed the abolishment of traditional Chinese medicine and took measures to stop its development and use. In 1928 the Communist party of China was formed, under the leadership of Chairman Mao and in 1949 the Communist party came to power. As there was very little or no medical services at the time, the new communist government encouraged the use of traditional Chinese remedies because they were cheap, acceptable to the Chinese, and used the skills already available in the countryside. Unfortunately, Chinese medicine, as a reflection of traditional Chinese culture, underwent a period of extreme hardship during the Cultural Revolution. From 1966 to 1976, traditional doctors were purged from the schools, hospitals and clinics, and many of the old practitioners were jailed or killed. In 1979, the National Association for Chinese Medicine was established, and many of the traditional texts were edited and republished.

    Schools of Chinese medicine first appeared in the U.S. during the 1970s. It was not until the 1980s that a major expansion of this field took place, stimulated by new legislative bills licensing acupuncture as a health profession in numerous states and the opening of China, allowing visits to study Chinese medicine. In 1980, the World Health Organization released a list of 43 types of pathologies, which can be effectively treated with acupuncture. There are now approximately 900 students graduating from professional Oriental medical schools each year, with licensing for qualified practitioners now available in 36 states and in the District of Columbia. There are more than 12,000 active acupuncture practices in this country.

    Sources: Wikipedia, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine,,, Institute for Traditional Medicine,



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