Acupuncture is certainly an ancient art, but the exact date that it was first practiced in China and how it evolved from ancient times is uncertain, but it certainly dates back many hundreds, if not, thousands of years. The earliest written record of acupuncture is found in the Huangdi Neijing (translated as The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon), dated approximately 300 BC. The text does not distinguish between acupuncture and moxibustion however and gives the same indication for both therapies.
Other archaeological findings related to acupuncture found in China are sharpened stones called Bian Shi. It is believed that these may have been used for acupuncture or similar practices relating to acupuncture points, and possibly date to the Neolithic or even earlier in the Stone Age. The history of acupuncture can be traced back as far as the Shang Dynasty around 1600–1100 BC where Hieroglyphs and pictographs from that time have also been found, and suggests that acupuncture was practiced alongside moxibustion during this period as it is today.
Acupuncture during the 2nd century BC
Some historians and archaeologists suggest that acupuncture originated from bloodletting or demonology and that previously found sharpened stones may have been used for this practice. The Mawangdui texts, from around the 2nd century BC, mentioned the use of pointed stones to open abscesses and it is suggested that blood-letting may have also been practiced during that time. It does not discuss acupuncture in the sense of stimulating the acupuncture points though, although moxibustion is mentioned. By the 2nd century BC however, acupuncture replaced moxibustion as the main treatment of general conditions.
Acupuncture history suggests the earliest known use of metal needles as opposed to bone and stone, was around the Han Dynasty (2nd century BC), after metal needles were found in a tomb dated 113 BC. It is possible however, that their use may not have been specifically for acupuncture.
In September 1991, a 5,000 year old mummified body was found in the Ötztal Alps near the border of Austria and Italy in Europe, and came to be known as Ötzi the Iceman. Examination identified 15 groups of tattoos on his body. Some of these are located on what are known acupuncture points. This has been acknowledged to be reasonable evidence that acupuncture or similar practices may have begun elsewhere in Eurasia during the early Bronze Age. This suggests that acupuncture history dates back to over 5,000 years ago!
The practice of acupuncture moved outside of China into Japan, Korea and Taiwan, and deviated from the narrower, traditional, theoretical principles and practice of the Mainland in the process. A large number of present day practitioners outside of China, follow these non-TCM practices for the application of acupuncture traetments. This is especially so in Europe where a more ‘Western approach’ to symptomatic relief through acupuncture point selection is acheived.
Acupuncture history reveals that many texts were written on acupuncture in China between the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 CE), and the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279). In 1023, Emperor Renzong ordered a bronze statue to be made to clarify the anatomical position of the meridians, and acupuncture points in use at that time. After the end of the Song Dynasty however, acupuncture lost its credibility and was associated with ‘less respected’ practices such as shamanism, alchemy, midwifery and moxibustion. In the centuries that followed, acupuncture became scarce, giving way to its more popular and respected counterpart, herbalism.
Acupuncture History in the West
The first to bring reports of acupuncture to the West, were Portuguese missionaries of the 16th century. And Jacob de Bondt (1591–1631), a Dutch surgeon traveling in Asia, described the practice of acupuncture in Japan and Java on his return. Although at this time in China, acupuncture was increasingly associated with the lower-classes and less educated practitioners.
In 1822, the Chinese Emperor banned the practice and teaching of acupuncture and any association of acupuncture history within the Imperial Academy of Medicine entirely. In Europe, acupuncture was still discussed at this time with both scepticism and praise, but with very little training or research.
After the Chinese Civil War (1927–1950), the Chinese Communist leaders mocked Chinese medicine, and acupuncture along with all aspects of acupuncture history and any traditions associated with it. They regarded acupuncture as superstitious and foolish. They said it conflicted with their dedication to science, progress, and ‘the way forward’. Acupuncture history took a turn during the reign of Mao Zedong (December 26, 1893 – September 9, 1976), the Communist Party Chairman, when he reversed this position. He claimed that Chinese medicine and herbalism are great treasure houses, and efforts should be made to explore them further in order to raise them to a higher standard. During his leadership, acupuncture history was explored, and traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture was revived.
In 1971, acupuncture gained exposure in the West, after a New York Times reporter, James Reston, received acupuncture in Beijing for post-operative pain. He wrote about it in his newspaper on his return. Acupuncture received more publicity when President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972.
There is a lot speculation on acupuncture history and the true origin of acupuncture, with many conflicting views. Much of the evidence is based on factual findings, while the remainder is based on folk tales and knowledge passed down through generations. It is almost certain however, that acupuncture and it’s history dates back to many hundreds, and possibly thousands of years before Jesus Christ existed.