Traditional Chinese Medicine has been around for thousands of years. Although the first recorded history of TCM dates back over 2,000 years, it is believed that the origins of TCM go back more than 5,000 years. Bear in mind that, apart from the recorded documents much of what is said about the origins of Chinese medicine is more legend than history.
According to the legend the origins of traditional Chinese medicine is traced back to three legendary emperors/mythical rulers: Fu Xi, Shen Nong, and Huang Di. Historians believe that Shen Nong and Fu Xi were 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 5000 years ago is hailed as the “Divine Cultivator”/”Divine Farmer” by the Chinese people because he is attributed as the founder of herbal medicine, and taught people how to farm. In order to determine the nature of different herbal medicines, Shen Nong sampled various kinds of plants, ingesting them himself for to test and analyse 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 get rid of people’s pain form illness. As there were no written records, it is said that the discoveries of Shen Nong was passed down verbally from generation to generation.
The first written documentation on traditional Chinese medicine is the Hung-Di Nei-Jing (Yellow Emperor’s Cannon of Internal Medicine). Hung-Di Nei-Jing is the oldest medical textbook in the world; different opinions date the book back to between 800 BCE and 200 BCE. Yellow Emperor’s Cannon of Internal Medicine lays a primary foundation for the theories of Chinese medicine which extensively summarizes and systematizes the previous experience of treatment and theories of medicine, such as the meridian theory, as well as many other issues, including, physiology, pathology, prevention, diagnosis, treatment, acupuncture and moxibustion, tuina, etc.
Some of the most specific discoveries of Chinese medicine were made during the Zhou dynasty, including the theoretical foundations of yin and yang, the five elements, the pathogenic factors of external environment as a cause of disease and further understanding of the meridians of acupuncture. The basic theories of acupuncture were established and stone needles became obsolete, being replaced by metal needles. Bian Que, a famous doctor/physician at the time of the spring and Autumn Warring States Period, was the first man in the world to use the pulse for diagnosis.
One of the most well-known story is talks about how Bian Que succeeded in curing the crown prince of the Kingdom of Guo of his fatal illness. According to the legend, the prince of Guo was very ill and as he lay dying, the court physician could do nothing to help. One version of this story has it that Bian Que was summoned to treat the prince, however when he arrived at the palace he found the crown prince being prepared for the funeral. Despite the funeral arrangements, Bian Que requested examining the prince. His examination confirmed his suspicion that the prince had actually gone into a deep coma. He gave the prince acupuncture treatment to retrieve him and then applied compresses soaked in a decoction of herbs. Within hours of Bian Que’s arrival, the prince was able to get on his feet. The prince was then prescribed boiled herbal compounds to be taken for twenty days, which helped him to fully recover.
Soon the rumours spread that Bian Que was a miracle worker who could bring the dead back to life. Bian Que said “No, I can’t bring the dead back to life, the prince wasn’t dead. I only treated his illness, and that is what brought him around.”
Zhang Zhongjing (150-219 CE), the most famous of China’s ancient herbal doctors lived during the Eastern Han dynasty was known for his remarkable medical skill. He wrote a book a medical masterpiece entitled Shang Han Lun or “Treatise on Febrile Diseases”. To date Zhang Zhongjing’s theory and prescriptions are still of great practical value. It is still used as a standard reference work for traditional Chinese medicine, including moxibustion, needling and herbal medicine.
One of the most famous physicians/surgeon of traditional Chinese medicine was Hua To (110-207 CE) also lived during the Eastern Han period. Hua To was the first of the Taoist physicians, the most famous doctor in ancient China who developed/invented the use of anaesthesia 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 about 1600-1700 years. He also developed Five Animal Play, exercises that mimics the movements and postures of five animals: tiger, deer, bear, ape, and bird. According to Hu Tao the motion is fundamentally important to health, and by mimicking the movements of different animals; all parts of the body were exercised and stretched, thereby activating the flow of fluid and energy in the body.
During the Sui Dynasty, Chao Yuanfang, together with others compiled a book called the Zhubing Yuanhou Zonglun (The General Treatise on the Causes and Symptoms of Disease), which consisted of 50 volumes, divided into 67 categories, and list 1,700 syndromes. This book had a strong influence on the later development of medicine, expounding on the pathology, signs and symptoms of various diseases, surgery, gynaecology, and paediatrics.
In 752 CE, Wang Tao another well-known scholar of Chinese medicine wrote a book called Waitai Miyao (The Medical Secrets of An Official). This book consisted of 40 volumes, 1,104 categories and discusses over 6,000 herbal prescriptions.
The Tang dynasty is often referred to as the second golden age of China. It was during the Tang dynasty when China’s first school of medicine was established. Sun Simiao (581-682 CE), the most famous physician of the Tang Dynasty devoted his whole life to Chinese medicine starting from a very young age. It is said that by the age of 15 he not only had a thorough understanding of Taoism and the classics of many of its sects, but also had also deeply researched Buddhist classics. He had mastered all the Chinese classics by the age 20 and became a well-known medical practitioner and was crowned “King of Herbal Medicine”.
During the Yuan Dynasty, China was controlled by Genghis Khan’s vast Mongolian empire. During the period of Mongolian empire Chinese medicine became increasingly specialized and the understanding of acupuncture was further detailed. In 1368 BCE, the Chinese regained control of their land under the Ming dynasty. Li Shizhen, (1518-1593 CE) was one of the greatest physician and pharmacologist of the Ming dynasty. His major contribution to medicine was his forty-year work, which is found in his epic book Ben Cao Gang-mu (The Compendium of Materia Medica). The text contains 1,900,000 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, flavour, nature and application in treatment. This book was one of the greatest contributions to the development of pharmacology both in China and throughout the world. Materia Medica has been translated into many different languages and remains as the premier reference work for herbal medicine.
The Revolution of 1911 saw the beginning of the 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 1927 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. Finally the traditional Chinese medicine regained popularity by the early to mid 1950s and the use of acupuncture and herbal medicine became standard medicine in many hospitals. Many hospital opened clinics to provide, teach and investigate the traditional methods, the main research institutes being in Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing.
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.
In 1980, the World Health Organization released a list of 43 types of pathologies, which can be effectively treated with acupuncture. Today the traditional Chinese medicine with its many branches has spread far and wide, gaining popularity in all parts of the world.