Traditional Chinese medicine is based on the use of herbal medicines, acupuncture, diet, and lifestyle. Cultural anthropologists have found that every indigenous society (often labeled “primitive” in common speech) has developed a wide knowledge of the plant life in its environment.
Native people often have hundreds of names for the plants in their area and generally use them to treat illnesses. Modern Chinese medicine evolved from such folk origins, undocumented by written records. During the thousands of years of its history, empirical observation, along with trial and error, has improved the efficacy of Chinese medicine.
Chinese Medicine – Ancient Origins
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is possibly the oldest continually used medical system known to humankind. It evolved from evidence-based beginnings in folk medicine, including observation of treatment results and experiments to see what did and did not work. Early written records of TCM reveal that it was already in use at least three thousand years ago, but archaeological records and oral tradition place its origin thousands of years earlier.
What Archaeology Reveals
Archaeological evidence testifies to the ancient use of acupuncture. Excavations from the Stone Age reveal that cattle bones – and, later, turtle shells – were used for various purposes, including medical practice. These “oracle bones” were drilled and heated, causing them to crack. It was the diviner’s role to interpret their meaning, or “read” these cracks. Medical advice was among the more prominent requests made of diviners.
Archaeological excavations have found records of the shamanistic use of divination dating from the Shang dynasty (c.1766 – c.1050 B.C.). Carvings on tortoise shells and animal bones clearly relate to headaches, eye and stomach pains, parasites, and other afflictions.
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The use of stones for pain relief is also an ancient Chinese practice. Archaeologists believe that, at first, stones were pressed into the painful parts of the body to relieve soreness. Via a process of trial and error, people sharpened the stones until they assumed the shape of needles. Archaeological discoveries of stone needles several thousand years old place the origins of acupuncture in the Neolithic era (c. 8,000 BCE – c. 2,000 BCE), also known as the New Stone Age.
By continuous experimentation, ancient medical practitioners discovered the specific points on the body that made stone needle acupuncture more effective. The practice of acupuncture by Neolithic populations was passed down through oral tradition, gradually becoming refined over the centuries. The use of stone needles remained standard procedure for many generations.
A popular Chinese legend claims that the god Pa’n Ku created Yin and Yang from chaos at the beginning of time. Pa’n Ku’s body parts were assimilated into the world: his bones turned into the mountains, his muscles the earth, his veins the rivers, his breath the wind, his sweat the rain, and his four limbs the pillars holding up the corners of the earth.
Thus, the concept of Yin and Yang – the central tenet of Chinese medicine – is as old as Chinese civilization, itself.
The legendary emperor Shen Nong (circa 3000 B.C.) is considered the founder of Chinese herbal medicine. Shen Nong is said to have experimented on himself by ingesting various plants, in order to test and analyze their individual effects. Oral tradition purports that he tested over a hundred herbs on himself, including many toxic substances.
A Riverine Culture and Philosophical Foundations
In a June 2013 interview, Shay Ravid – Traditional Chinese medicine practitioner and lecturer at the Tao College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Israel – pointed out that “China is a land rich in rivers.” He said “The origins of Chinese medicine lie in the fact that Chinese civilization originated in an economy based on riverine agriculture. The ancient Chinese were intensely aware of the way water moves and flows, as well as the major role of water in the proper functioning of the human body.”
Likewise, Confucian and Taoist ideologies contributed significantly to the development of Chinese medicine. The teaching of K’ung Fu Tzu (Confucius) dominated Chinese thought from the time of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.) until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 A.D.
In A Heritage of Traditional Chinese Medicine (2013), Wei Li writes “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.” Since acupuncture and herbal medicines treated illness without mutilating the body, these medical practices were respected, and flourished.
Equally significant was the influence of Taoist philosophy, whose fundamental principle is the theory of Yin and Yang, which characterizes the universe as a collection of interdependent yet polar natural forces. Accordingly, a central tenet of Chinese medicine is that ideal health is achieved through harmony with nature. As Taoism promoted the use of detailed observation, Chinese medicine evolved using methodology that was basically scientific.
Ancient Nomenclature in the Modern World
The mysticism implied in the nomenclature of Chinese medicine derives from the fact that it was strongly influenced by Confucian and Taoist philosophies. Thus, its basic terminology includes such words as spirit, treasures, and heaven. These seemingly mystical terms can be replaced by modern English terminology that sounds more scientific to the Western ear and fits in better with the Western world view. The significant point is that Chinese medicine has evolved from practice by early TCM experts in ancient times, and especially since the mid-twentieth century, through careful clinical experimentation and research. It has proven effective in many contexts.
Cousin, Pierre Jean. A Brief History of Chinese Medicine. Accessed June 22, 2013.
Felt, Robert L. The Ancient History of Chinese Medicine, Part 1. (2006). Paradigm Publications. Accessed June 21, 2013.
Wang Jin-Huai. Historical Timeline of Chinese Medicine. The Association for Traditional Studies. Accessed June 29, 2013.
Wei Li. A Brief History of Chinese Medicine. A Heritage of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Accessed June 29, 2013.