This manuscript, found in a Han era tomb, gives prescriptions for 52 kinds of disease remedies.
This manuscript, found in a Han era tomb, gives prescriptions for 52 kinds of disease remedies. Image courtesy of Professor Ying Li, Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, Chinese Academy of Science, Shanghai, China.

The earliest written records of Chinese medicine date back about 5000 years, and include the Huang-Di Nei-Jing, possibly the oldest medical text in the world. These records had great significance for the development of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and even for Western medicine.

Chinese Medicine and Oral Tradition

Today, people take writing for granted, and we expect knowledge in every field to be documented in writing. Writing is a relatively recent invention however: for most of human history, knowledge passed down from generation to generation via oral tradition – often in the form of songs and stories. People used a variety of mnemonic devices to help them remember details.

Approximately 5000 years ago, the Chinese established a formal written language, writing with ink on silk. That was the culmination of centuries of experimentation with writing. But archaeologists claim that the roots of written Chinese go back much further, to about seven thousand years ago.

Thanks to archaeological research, we know that by the time the first written records of Chinese medicine appeared, the knowledge that they imparted had been in use for many centuries.

Chinese Medicine in the Archaeological Record

Archaeologists have found some of the best information about the early use of Chinese medicine at grave sites. For example, two graves from the Han Dynasty (c. 202 BCE to c. 220 CE) contained ancient silk scrolls with references to 247 herbal substances used for medicinal purposes.

At the grave site of a doctor from the Later Han era (c. 25 to c. 220 CE), archaeologists found 92 wooden bamboo slips with pharmaceutical data which included a list of thirty prescriptions, referring to a hundred herbal medicines. These are believed to be the oldest written medical records in existence.

Zhou Dynasty Medical Documents

Medical records from the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1100 BCE – c. 250 BCE) reveal that doctors were divided into four areas of specialization: diet, internal medicine (called “disease”), external medicine (called “sores”), and veterinary medicine. Senior doctors were in charge of the administration and evaluation of junior professionals. Interestingly, the dietary physician had the highest status; therapeutic diet has continued to be a central element in TCM throughout its evolution.

This ancient grave is found on "China Hill" in Melaka
This ancient grave is found on “China Hill” in Melaka. Image courtesy of Rudolph A. Furtado.

The Classic of Mountains and Rivers (c. 200 BCE) gives information on diseases and the plants, minerals and animal materials that may be used to treat them.

The Huang-Di Nei-Jing (Yellow Emperor’s Cannon of Internal Medicine) may be the oldest medical textbook in the world, dating back to somewhere between 300 BCE and 200 BCE. The book is named for Huang Di, The Yellow Emperor, who lived between 2700 BCE and 2600 BCE. It is supposedly a record of the emperor’s conversations with his distinguished doctor, Qi Bo.

The Huang-Di Nei-Jing Document

The Huang-Di Nei-Jing consists of 162 articles and is divided into two sections: theory and practice. The theoretical section discusses the interactions between the internal organs, the sense organs, and brain waves. It deals extensively with the concept of yin and yang, as applied to medicine.

The yin-yang principle states that the organs of the body are interdependent, and support each other in a harmonious state when the individual is healthy. Disease is thus defined as loss of the natural harmony within and between the organs. Therefore, the goal of treatment in traditional Chinese medicine is to restore the body’s natural harmony.

Another theory discussed in the book is the concept of the five elements: metal, wood, water, fire and earth.

The second section of the Huang-Di Nei Jing is a detailed manual on the practice of acupuncture, revealing how it had evolved to include much of the knowledge that forms the basis of modern acupuncture.

Researchers believe that the Huang-Di Nei Jing was written by an anonymous group of doctors, rather than one author. Significantly, the book continues to be used as a reference work by contemporary TCM practitioners.***

Click to Read Page 2: Shang Han Lun from the Han Dynasty