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History of Traditional Chinese Medicine

History and Development

Traditional Chinese medicine originated from the first signs of therapeutic acitivities in China which dated from the Shang dynasty during the 14th – 11th centuries BC. Though the Shang did not have a theory of medicine as such at this time, their inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells refer to illnesses that affected the Shang royal family and included eye disorders, toothaches and bloated abdomens, etc. However, the Shang leaders usually interpreted these disorders as curses sent by their ancestors. Therefore, there is no evidence that the Shang nobility used herbal remedies during this time.

It was initially considered that acupuncture may have originated in the Shang Dynasty, when stone and bone needles were found in ancient tombs of that period. However, most historians now believe they were used as a form of medical lancing or bloodletting to release pus or pressure built up under the skin, such as from an abscess, or boil etc. and not in the traditional sense of acupuncture that uses needles to treat illnesses by stimulating specific acu-points along meridians in accordance with theories related to the circulation of Qi. The earliest evidence for acupuncture in this sense dates to the second or first century BC.

The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon (Huangdi Neijing), also known as The Inner Canon of Huangdi, is the oldest known work on Traditional Chinese medicine and its theoretical ideologies. The work is generally dated by scholars to have been compiled somewhere between the late Warring States period (475-221 BC) and the early Han period (206 BC–220 BC), on the basis of shorter texts from different medical lineages. It is an ancient Chinese medical text that has been treated as the fundamental source for Traditional Chinese medicine and a major book on Taoist theory and lifestyle during two millennia. Its importance is comparable to Greek medicine’s Hippocratic Corpus (5th century BC – 1st and 2nd centuries AD), or the works of Claudius Galenus (AD 129–200), in Islamic and medieval European medicine.

The Inner Canon is composed of two texts each of eighty-one chapters written in the form of questions and answers between the Yellow Emperor and one or more of his ministers. It gives explanations on the relationships of humans and their environment, the cosmos, the physical body, human vitality, pathology, the symptoms of illness, and provides information on how to make a diagnosis and therapeutic decisions in light of all these factors. Unlike earlier beliefs and texts such as Recipes for Fifty-Two Ailments, (excavated in the 1970s from a tomb that was sealed in 168 BC), the Inner Canon rejected the idea that the influence of spirits and magic give rise to disease. Instead, it taught that the natural effects of diet, lifestyle, emotions, environment, and age are the reasons why diseases develop.

The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon was one of the first books in which the cosmological principles of Yin-Yang and the Five Phases and Qi were written in a clear concise manner. It taught that these forces can be understood via rational means and humans can stay in balance or return to balance and health by understanding the laws of these natural forces of the universe. The inner Canon taught that man is a microcosm and a reflection of the larger macrocosm, and the principles of Yin and Yang, The Five Elements, Qi, and the environmental factors of wind, damp, hot and cold etc that form that macrocosm, also apply to, and affect the human microcosm, our body.

The Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders and Miscellaneous Illnesses was organized by Zhang Zhongjing (150—219), a Han Dynasty physician who became one of the most renowned Chinese physicians during the later years of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 BC). He established principles for medication and summarized the medicinal experience up until that time, therefore, making a great contribution to the development of traditional Chinese medicine.

Focusing on drug (herbal) prescriptions rather than acupuncture, Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders and Miscellaneous Illnesses, was the first medical text that combined Yin and Yang and the Five Phases with herbalism. This basic herbal list was the first Chinese medical text that grouped symptoms into useful “patterns”, to be used as principle guidelines for clinical treatment. Having gone through numerous changes over time, it now circulates as two distinct books: the Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders and the Essential Prescriptions of the Golden Casket, both of which were separately edited in the eleventh century, during the Song dynasty.

The following centuries saw several shorter books try to summarize the contents of The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon. The Canon of Problems (around 2nd century), tried to resolve conflicting principles from the Inner Canon and developed a complete medical system centred on acupuncture therapy. Huangfu Mi (215–282), compiled The Canon of Acupuncture and Moxibustion sometime between 256 and 260. It is a collection of various texts on acupuncture written in earlier periods. The book consists of 12 volumes, further divided into 128 chapters and was one of the earliest systematic works on acupuncture and moxibustion. It also proved to be one of the most influential. Huangfu Mi also compiled 10 books in a series called Records of Emperors and Kings, a consistent body of principles regarding acupuncture therapy. And the Canon of the Pulse (280), presented itself as a “comprehensive handbook for diagnosis and therapy.


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