The four major periods

Between the 29th century BCE and the 16th century CE Chinese medicine passed through four major periods. The first, from the 29th to 27th centuries BCE, was the time of the three emperors, primarily an era of myth and legend with only approximate dating of events. The events of the next 2,000 years are obscure, but a slow growth of medical knowledge and gradual changes in medical practice can be assumed.

The second period was a mixture of legend and fact centred on the career of Bian Qiao (Bian Que)—about whom anecdotal material dates to the first half of the 5th century BCE. The third period was that of the great practitioners, the physicians Zhang Zhongjing and Wang Shuhe and the surgeon Hua Tuo, running from about CE 150 to 300. The individuals and events were real, although legends have grown up around them. The final 1,300 years, featuring the compilation of encyclopaedic works and the writing of commentaries on earlier authors, produced little that was original. In the second half of the 16th century, tenuous communication began with medical representatives from the West, and the character of Chinese medicine began to change.

Ancient Chinese emperors and medical texts

The three emperors—Fu Xi, Shennong, and Huangdi—were medically oriented. Fu Xi discovered the bagua (“eight trigrams”), the symbolic basis for medical, philosophical, and astrological thinking. Shennong, called the founder of Chinese medicine, was also known as the Divine Husbandman. Huangdi, the famed Yellow Emperor who ruled in the 27th century BCE, was at one time believed to have written the Huangdi neijing (The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic). However, the work was actually composed much later—the 3rd century BCE. Despite this discrepancy, the Huangdi neijing has been revered for centuries and provides the theoretical concepts for TCM.

Fu Xi and the bagua

Fu Xi, the legendary founder of the Chinese people, reputedly showed his subjects how to fish, raise domestic animals, and cook. He taught them the rules of marriage and the use of picture symbols. He also made known the bagua, which he first saw written on the back of a “dragon-horse” as it rose from the waters of the Yellow River (Huang He). To accomplish all of these things Fu Xi had to have an unusual beginning and a long reign. The former was provided by his mother, who conceived the future emperor miraculously and carried him in her womb for 12 years.

The bagua consists of eight trigrams, or three-line symbols, composed of continuous and broken lines. The continuous lines are called yang and basically represent all things male; the broken lines are called yin and represent female aspects of life. Yang and yin are complementary rather than antagonistic. Such is the profundity of meaning contained in these symbols that the Chinese philosopher Confucius once stated that if he could study the bagua for 50 years he might be able to obtain wisdom. Confucius did study the bagua long enough to write a commentary that forms part of the Yijing (Classic of Changes), one of the books revered throughout the history of China.

The ideograms for yin and yang first appeared in an appendix to the Yijing. In diagrammatic form yin and yang appear as two fish in a circle, yin in black and yang in white. The fact that each yin contains a little yang and each yang a little yin is symbolized by the eye of each fish which is of the opposite colour. Yin also stands for earth, moon, night, cold, moist, death, and passive, among other things, while yang represents heaven, sun, day, heat, dry, life, active, and so forth.

Medically speaking, everything could be classed either as yin or yang, and to heal diseases, the ancient Chinese physician strove to bring these two qualities back into balance. The inside of the body is yin, the surface or skin is yang; the spleen, lungs, and kidneys are yin, the heart and liver are yang; a disease is yin when it results from internal causes, yang when it comes from external causes; purgatives, bitter substances, and cold infusions are yin drugs, while resolvents, pungent substances, and hot decoctions are yang drugs. Yin and yang are present throughout the macrocosm of the world just as they are present in the microcosm of the human body.

Shennong and the Shennong bencaojing

The second legendary emperor, Shennong, is said to have been born in the 28th century BCE and was known as the Red Emperor because his patron element was fire. His mother was a princess and his father a heavenly dragon. Shennong reportedly invented the plow, taught his people to be farmers, and found and tested plants that had curative or poisonous qualities. He supposedly wrote down much of this information in the Shennong bencaojing (Divine Husbandsman’s Classic of Medicine), where he categorized the medicines as superior (nonpoisonous and rejuvenating), medium (having some toxicity based on the dosage and exerting tonic effects), or inferior (poisonous but able quickly to reduce fever and cure indigestion). Although most authorities now agree that the Shennong bencaojing was written about the time of Christ, Shennong is generally looked upon as the father of Chinese medicine.

Huangdi and the Huangdi neijing

The third of the three ancient Chinese emperors began his rule in 2697 BCE. Called the Yellow Emperor, because his patron element was earth, Huangdi is the best known of the three early rulers. He was long supposed to have written the Huangdi neijing, although the work is now believed to have been composed in the 3rd century BCE. Nevertheless, the Huangdi neijing has been the highest Chinese authority on medical matters for over 2,000 years and has appeared in many editions.

The major contribution Huangdi made to medicine must certainly be the invention of the nine needles for acupuncture. Like his predecessors, Huangdi had a remarkable birth and a long life. He supposedly taught his people how to print and how to make utensils of wood, pottery, and metal. A good administrator, he delegated to his aides such assignments as building boats, making the wheel, inventing a system of currency, composing a calendar, and many other useful tasks. Huangdi himself allegedly obtained information on diagnosis, the pulse, and other medical matters from immortals and goddesses. Huangdi was given the formula for the “nine gourd powder” and the “nineteen gold and silver prescriptions.” He also acquired the prescription for making the “nine tripod pills.” All of these he prepared on a special stove, one of his own inventions. To keep the fire going in this busy stove, thousands of tigers and leopards came to his home to take turns helping. When the last pills had been made, a yellow dragon came down from heaven and escorted Huangdi to paradise. Seventy of his concubines and most faithful ministers accompanied him on this final flight.

The emphasis in the Huangdi neijing, and indeed throughout most of Chinese medical history, is on the preventive rather than the curative. Physicians were rated on the basis of whether they could keep well people well. The physician who could take action only after the disease had manifested itself for all to see was looked on as an inferior practitioner. The Huangdi neijing states this concept clearly with some well-drawn analogies:

“To administer medicines to diseases which have already developed and to suppress revolts which have already developed is comparable to the behavior of those persons who begin to dig a well after they have become thirsty, and of those who begin to cast weapons after they have already engaged in battle. Would these actions not be too late?”

The elements of anatomy in the Huangdi neijing underlie the discussion of diseases. Yin and yang are distributed throughout the body in an even balance in a healthy individual. However, a specific organ or area may have more of one than of the other. These two principles are each subdivided into three degrees: yin has a great female principle, a female principle proper, and a young female principle, while yang has the male counterparts. These subdivisions differ from each other primarily in the relative amounts of air and blood contained in them. When these principles are balanced, the individual will be healthy.

Disease can also be caused by winds, the seasons, and noxious airs. The winds, some commentators believe, played such an important part in Chinese medicine because the original Chinese people came from the Yellow River area where the winds were usually active and where changes in direction and intensity often foretold difficulties or disasters. The noxious airs were usually thought of as indicating improper living habits, especially deviations from the rules of the Dao, or Way. If an individual strayed from the right way, he could expect to suffer for it, and medical problems were one type of penalty.

The organs (liver, heart, spleen, lungs, and kidneys) were thought to store materials. The viscera (gallbladder, stomach, large intestine, small intestine, bladder, and the three burning spaces—unique areas that cannot be specifically identified) were looked on as eliminators. The comprehensive correspondences between these organs, viscera, substances, seasons, winds, and many other qualities, concepts, and things played a major role in Chinese medicine. The doctrine of the five elements—metal, water, wood, fire, and earth—was also important. The physician strove for a balance among the elements and the items related to them.

Using volumes that 500 years before had belonged to Zhang Zhongjing, Wang Bing compiled the most complete edition of the Huangdi neijing in the middle of the 8th century CE during the Tang dynasty (618–907). The governmental authorities determined that the work should be classed as a medical book. The decision meant that the Huangdi neijing was delivered into the hands of craftsmen (physicians) rather than into the hands of men of higher education who could appreciate the philosophy behind the medical teachings as well as the governmental and religious aspects. This unfortunate situation was later corrected by the Emperor Renzong (reigned 1021–63) of the following Song Dynasty (960–1279).

Bian Qiao

The first outstanding physician after the three emperors was Bian Qiao, who lived more than 2,000 years after Huangdi. Bian Qiao’s birth date is uncertain but is thought to be in the early years of the 5th century BCE. Although some facts are known about his life, Bian Qiao is also a somewhat mythical figure. The Herodotus of China, Sima Qian (c. 145–87 BCE), wrote a long biography of him, contemporary authors wrote about his cures, and several books are assumed to have been written by him.

According to one story, Bian Qiao ran an inn when he was a young man. One of the older residents of the inn, Chang Sangjun, recognized Bian Qiao’s sterling qualities and decided to make the younger man his medical heir. Chang Sangjun told Bian Qiao that he could have his medical secrets if he would vow not to divulge them to others. When Bian Qiao agreed, Chang Sangjun handed over a book and some herbs. Bian Qiao was to take the herbs in a special liquid for 30 days, and he would then be able to understand all the secrets of nature. Immediately after giving his instructions, Chang Sangjun vanished. Bian Qiao followed the instructions carefully, and at the end of the 30 days he discovered that he not only understood the secrets of nature but also could see through the human body. Wisely he kept this ability to himself and publicly derived his information about the patient’s inner workings by carefully attending to the pulse.

Many miraculous cures and predictions were credited to Bian Qiao. When the great Zhao Jianzi had been unconscious for five days, the officials sent for Bian Qiao, who accurately predicted that Zhao would recover within three days. When this occurred, Bian Qiao was given 6,500 acres of land as a reward. Once when he was traveling through Guo, Bian Qiao heard that the prince had died. Going immediately to the palace gate, Bian Qiao sought detailed information. What he heard led Bian Qiao to say that he could bring the prince back to life. He diagnosed him with catalepsy, had his assistant apply moxa and acupuncture to several points, and received the plaudits of the assembled throng when, indeed, the prince’s life was restored.

Bian Qiao’s handling of the Marquis Qi Huan of the ancient state of Qi serves as a cautionary tale. While dining with the Marquis, Bian Qiao told him that he had a latent disease that should be treated immediately. The Marquis replied that he certainly was not ill. Five days later Bian Qiao saw the Marquis again and informed him that the disease had entered the blood. The Marquis responded by saying that he was not only well but was also becoming rather annoyed. After another five days, Bian Qiao told the Marquis that the disease was in the stomach and intestines, but he received the same response. After five more days, Bian Qiao again came into the Marquis’s presence, but this time the physician said nothing and backed out of the room. His action upset the Marquis, who immediately sent a messenger to get an explanation for this strange behaviour. Bian Qiao replied with devastating logic:

“When a disease was only skin deep it may be reached by concoctions and applications; when in the blood system by puncturing; when in the stomach and intestines by alcoholic extracts. But when it had penetrated the bone-marrow, what could a doctor do? Now that the disease has lodged in His Excellency’s bone-marrow, it is useless for me to make further comments.”

The Marquis became ill five days later, as Bian Qiao had predicted, and died shortly thereafter. This story is a beautiful example of the Chinese emphasis on preventive or early treatment rather than on attempts to cure a disease in its advanced stages.

Bian Qiao wrote the popular Nanjing (Difficult Classic), from which information on diagnostic methods was later incorporated into the Huangdi neijing. He also included the measurements and weights of various organs taken from cadavers. One of Bian Qiao’s major struggles was against superstition. He endeavoured to instruct medical men and laity alike wherever he went. One of his most frequently quoted aphorisms was, “A case is incurable if one believes in sorcerers instead of in doctors.”

Bian Qiao was looked upon by many as the most knowledgeable user of pulse lore, although Wang Shuhe, who lived 750 years later, is generally accepted as the chief authority on this peculiarly Chinese medical subject. Whatever may be the confusion over myth and fact in this great physician’s life, the highest compliment one could pay to a Chinese physician was to call him a “living Bian Qiao.”

The great practitioners

Zhang Zhongjing

The Chinese Hippocrates, Zhang Zhongjing, flourished toward the end of the 2nd century CE. He wrote an important book on dietetics, but he achieved his greatest fame for a treatise on typhoid and other fevers, a work highly regarded in the East for as long a time as Galen of Pergamum’s works were popular in the West. Zhang described typhoid clearly and recommended the use of only a few potent drugs in treating it. The drugs were to be used one at a time, a considerable advance from the shotgun prescriptions then common. Zhang stated that cool baths were also an important part of the treatment, an idea that remained unused for 1,700 years until Scottish physician James Currie promoted it in his famous treatise on fever therapy.

Zhang paid close attention to the physical signs, symptoms, kind, and course of a disease, and he carefully recorded the results obtained from any drugs that he prescribed. Zhang forthrightly stood for the dignity and responsibility of the medical profession, and this attitude, coupled with his close powers of observation, make it easy to understand why he has become known by the name of his Greek medical ancestor. In the 16th and 17th centuries there was a strong revival of his teachings and practices.

Hua Tuo

Huangdi’s Huangdi neijing devotes only a minute amount of space to surgery. Chinese doctors in the early periods felt that surgery was a matter of last resort, and little time was spent teaching or describing surgical techniques. What surgery was done was usually carried out by a lower grade of medical worker. However, around the beginning of the 3rd century CE a surgeon named Hua Tuo began to change Chinese surgery. As a young man, Hua Tuo traveled and read widely. He probably first became interested in medicine while trying to help the countless soldiers who had been wounded in the many wars of that violent period.

As a young surgeon Hua Tuo believed in simplicity, using only a few prescriptions and a few points for acupuncture. Using a preparation of hemp and wine, he was able to make his patients insensitive to pain. Hua Tuo was thus the discoverer of anesthetics, although some say that Bian Qiao had used them. He engaged in a wide variety of surgical procedures including laparotomy (incision into the abdominal cavity), removal of diseased tissues, and even a partial splenectomy (removal of the spleen). To treat gastrointestinal diseases Hua Tuo’s favourite procedure was to resect the viscera and wash the inside. He probably even performed end-to-end anastomoses (connections) of the intestines, although it is not known what substance he used for the sutures.

Of the stories told of Hua Tuo, one—possibly apocryphal—is that General Guandi, one of the great military heroes of the time who eventually became the God of War, came to Hua Tuo because of an arrow wound in his arm that had become badly infected. The surgeon prepared to give his patient the usual anesthetic drink, but General Guandi laughed scornfully and called for a board and stones for a game of go. While Hua Tuo scraped the flesh and bone free of infection and repaired the wound, Guandi and one of his military companions proceeded calmly with their game.

Surgery, although his main interest, was only one of Hua Tuo’s pursuits. He pioneered in hydrotherapy, and he did innovative work in physiotherapy. His series of exercises known as the frolics of the five animals, in which the patient imitated movements of the tiger, deer, bear, ape, and bird, was well known and widely adopted.

The end of Hua Tuo’s life is hidden in a mist of conflicting and doubtful stories. A likely set of these has him late in life becoming court physician to Cao Cao, king of Wei. The surgeon temporarily relieved the ruler of his giddiness by acupuncture. When the king asked him to do something to remove this annoyance permanently, Hua Tuo said he would have to cut into the royal skull. Cao Cao’s wife was in favour of surgery as a desperate hope, but the king became suspicious that his enemies had bribed Hua Tuo to kill him. In a fit of rage, perhaps triggered by these very headaches, the king had the surgeon thrown into jail and executed. Hua Tuo’s major book, Qingnang shu (Book of the Blue Bag) was burned, either by the jailer who wanted to remove all traces of the prisoner or by the surgeon’s wife acting in accordance with Hua Tuo’s wishes expressed before he was jailed.

Hua Tuo earned his place as the greatest surgeon in Chinese history. Unfortunately, the destruction of his writings and the Confucian dogma against mutilation of the human body combined to prevent the growth of surgery that might have been expected to follow the life of such a remarkable pioneer.

Wang Shuhe and the pulse

Since medicine was far more important than surgery in Chinese history, diagnosis was of considerable significance. Although the early Chinese physician examined with care the colour of the patient’s skin at various key points and noted any other external signs, he drew mainly on the pulse for diagnosis. Indeed, the study of the pulse was one of the major occupations of the physician, who listened for an almost endless variety of sounds and rhythms. The classic work in the field was the Maijing (The Pulse Classics), which was written by Wang Shuhe. Wang also wrote an important commentary on the Huangdi neijing, but his labours over the pulse are what raised him to the highest rank of Chinese physician. In the Huangdi neijing itself may be found the assertion “Nothing surpasses the examination of the pulse.”

Basically, the physician had three places on each wrist at which he must ascertain the quality and quantity of the pulse. The place closest to the hand was known as the cun (“inch”), the middle position was the guan (“bar”), and the one farthest from the hand was called the chi (“cubit”). Yin representing right and yang left, a woman’s right pulse indicated disorder and her left pulse order; the opposite held for a man.

The physician not only read three different pulses on each wrist but also read each pulse at two levels. For example, on the left wrist, when the inch was lightly pressed the pulse indicated the state of the small intestines; when heavily pressed, the heart. The bar lightly pressed indicated the state of the gallbladder, and when heavily pressed, the liver; and the cubit lightly pressed indicated the state of the urinary bladder, heavily pressed, the kidneys. The right wrist had its own relationships to the body organs.

The actual pulses were further divided into seven biao (“superficial”) and eight li (“sunken”) pulses. What could these pulses indicate? To take just one example, the seven superficial pulses on the inch position could indicate, among other things: (1) pains and heat in the middle region of the body and in the head; (2) accumulation of blood in the chest; (3) belching and vomiting; (4) insufferable heat within the thorax; (5) severe thoracic pains; (6) headaches; and (7) heat in the chest. Although to Western minds these varieties and relationships may appear complex or ridiculous, the Chinese physician trained in pulse lore could achieve some remarkable diagnoses.

Final period

In addition to the three emperors, as well as physicians such as Bian Qiao, Zhang Zhongjing, Hua Tuo, and Wang Shuhe, other individuals made single contributions of substantial importance to Chinese medicine. Ge Hong (3rd century CE), in a handbook of prescriptions for emergencies, gave a clear and detailed description of smallpox. Ge Hong’s achievement came almost six centuries before al-Rāzī (Rhazes), the great Persian physician generally given credit for the first description of this deadly disease. About 700 years after Ge Hong, the practice of inoculation against smallpox grew out of a rather hazy background. Supposedly, inoculation was brought to China by either a spiritual old woman or a holy physician. This individual lived on a mountain and began the practice by using scabs that had been dried, ground into a powder, and inserted into the nostrils. The method spread and cut the mortality rate substantially.

From the time of Wang Shuhe in the 3rd century to the middle of the 16th century CE, Chinese medical men devoted much of their efforts to the compilation of massive encyclopaedias and the writing of commentaries on the classical works. In 1644 official rites for worshipping the ancient physicians were instituted at the Qing Hui Palace near the College of Imperial Physicians in Peking (Beijing). These rites were celebrated in the spring and fall for many years.

When Portuguese Bishop Belchior Carneiro established Saint Raphael’s Hospital in the 16th century near Guangzhou (Canton), tentative medical communication began between East and West. As Western medicine gradually made deeper inroads in the country, some Chinese people began to believe that everything in Western medicine was scientific and good, and therefore better than the traditional medicine practiced in China. Despite the appearance once again of a physician, Sun Yat-sen, as the ruler of the country, this faith in Western medicine continued to grow at the expense of native medicine. However, in the early 20th century interest in TCM was renewed, and by the late 20th and early 21st centuries, TCM was practiced not only in China but also in countries worldwide.

Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica


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