The most ancient clues on the practice of medicine in China go back to about 1500 years BCE. These consist of records of diseases and their treatments, engraved on divination bones. First transmitted orally, the first written records of this medicine go back to the Warring States period (5th to 3rd centuries BCE), then to the Han dynasty (2nd to 3rd centuries BCE).
The Yellow Emperor (Huangdi), a legendary figure in Chinese history, who lived around 2600 BCE, is among those who established its foundations. Considered the unifying ancestor of the Han ethnic group, he was also a follower of Taoist principles. These principles allowed him to live to a very old age and even – according to legend – to become immortal. The invention of Feng Shui, coined money, metallurgy, the sexagesimal cycle and the Chinese calendar are all attributed to him.
He is featured in the most ancient treatise on traditional Chinese medicine, called The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Internal Medicine (Huangdi Nei Jing). The most ancient fragments of this work date back to about the 4th or 5th century BCE. Presented as a dialogue between the Yellow Emperor and his doctor, Qi Bo, the text puts forth man’s (microcosm) relationship to his environment (macrocosm). In addition to presenting the theoretical foundations of traditional Chinese medicine, it speaks more specifically about acupuncture and its regulating effect on the human body and mind. There is, incidentally, a question of old bian stones, that the Yellow Emperor wanted replaced by metal needles, which are still in use today.
Among the canonical works on traditional Chinese medicine are: The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica, (Shennong bencao jing), written in the 3rd century BCE, but attributed to Emperor Shen Nung and representing the first treatise on pharmacopeia in the history of China; the Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders (Shang han lun), written by Chang Chung-ching, classifying diseases into 6 categories (3 Yin and 3 Yang) and featuring a hundred medical prescriptions, several of which are still used today; Essential Formulas for Emergencies Worth a Thousand Pieces of Gold, (Beiji qian jin yaofang), written by Sun Simiao (581-682), a compendium bringing together the entire body of medical knowledge of the time and providing details on Taoist lifestyle practices and longevity; finally, The Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu), by Li Shizhen (1518-1593), one of the first works of traditional Chinese medicine translated into Western languages (18th century) and providing details on the effects and uses of close to 200 vegetable, mineral and animal ingredients. Chinese medicine influenced the practice of medicine in several Asian countries (Vietnam, Japan, Korea), each eventually developing its own particular approach. These diverse therapeutic approaches, related to Chinese medicine, are increasingly grouped together under the term “traditional Asian medicine.”
For more information:
- Wikipedia article on traditional Chinese medicine
- The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Internal Medicine (Huangdi Nei Jing)
- The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica, (Shennong bencao jing)
- Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders (Shang han lun)
- Essential Formulas for Emergencies Worth a Thousand Pieces of Gold, (Beiji qian jin yaofang)
- The Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu)