A Brief History of Traditional Chinese Medicine

1 Ideological Foundation & Influences
(Confucianism & Taoism in Early Eastern Culture)

2 The Birth & Growth of Acupuncture
(Origins, Evolution, & Westward Expansion)

3 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 approach 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. Man, 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, however, remain uncertain. Scholars have speculated that man
may have first attempted to relieve pain by pressing down on the local area of pain. Finding his fist
or palm inadequate for the task, he may have then experimented with heavier, jagged objects such as
rocks. Eventually he would learn to refine rocks into stone instruments and, with experience, also
come to realize that certain points on the body respond better to pressure than other points do.

Even though the system of Qi channels in the body had yet to be mapped out, Neolithic acupuncture
performed with stone needles demonstrated surprising effectiveness. For several thousand years stone
needles would endure as the traditional instrument of acupuncture. While excavations have unearthed
bronze needles from the Shang dynasty, stone needles had remained the standard instrument 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 (The Book of Difficult Questions)
reflected on ideas such as the circulation of Qi along the 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 acupunctural channels and points.

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, however, 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

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The Literature of Chinese Medicine

Classic Works of Internal & External Medicine

The earliest work to influence the philosophy of TCM may well be I-Ching (The Book of Change).
An intricate philosophical work, I-Ching was speculated to have been written 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 traditional Chinese medicine are all drawn from Fu Xu’s I-Ching.

Huang Di Nei Jing (Huang Di’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 well-being 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 written by an anonymous group of physicians.
Nevertheless, the wisdom conveyed by Huang Di Nei Jing remains an invaluable resource for practitioners
of TCM.

Likewise found to be written by physicians yet an accurate and important reference nonetheless is Shen
Nong Ben Ciao Jing
(Shen Nong’s Canon on Materia Medica). The legend accompanying this work
tells of an herbalist and farmer named Shen Nong. To document the healing properties of wild herbs, he is
said to have sampled nearly one hundred wild herbs daily, some medicinal and others poisonous. Shen Nong
Ben Ciao 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
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 (The
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 traditional Chinese medicine may
be Shang Han Lun (A Treatise on Febrile Diseases), written by a renowned herbalist named Zhang
Zhong Jing (150 CE – 219 CE). His work serves as an essential reference on the practices of TCM (i.e.
acupuncture, herbal medicine, moxibustion, etc). The most significant contribution of Zhang
Zhong Jing’s composition may be its classification of diseases into six channels by which all illnesses
can be diagnosed. Shang Han Lun invaluably guides TCM practitioners in interpreting the patient’s
pulse and determining the appropriate treatment of herbal prescription.

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