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The History of Chinese Medicine

The same philosophy that informs Taoist and Buddhist thought informs the philosophy of traditional Chinese medicine, which reflects the classical Chinese belief that the life and activity of individual human beings have an intimate relationship with the environment on all levels.

In legend, as a result of a dialogue with his minister Qibo, the Yellow Emperor (2698 - 2596 BCE) is supposed by Chinese tradition to have composed his Neijing: Suwen or Inner Canon: Basic Questions. The book Huangdi Neijing, Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon's title is often mistranslated as Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine. Modern scholarly opinion holds that the extant text of this title was compiled by an anonymous scholar no earlier than the Han dynasty, just over two-thousand years ago.

During the Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD), Zhang Zhongjing, China's Hippocrates, who was mayor of Chang-sha toward the end of the 2nd century AD, wrote a Treatise on Cold Damage, which contains the earliest known reference to Neijing Suwen. Another prominent Eastern Han physician was Hua Tuo (c. 140–c. 208 AD), who anesthetized patients during surgery with a formula of wine and powdered cannabis. Hua's physical, surgical, and herbal treatments were also used to cure headaches, dizziness, worms, fevers, coughing, blocked throat, and even a diagnosis for one lady that she had a dead fetus within her that needed to be taken out. The Jin dynasty practitioner and advocate of acupuncture and moxibustion, Huang-fu Mi (215 - 282 AD), also quoted the Yellow Emperor in his Jia Yi Jing, ca. 265 AD. During the Tang dynasty, Wang Bing claimed to have located a copy of the originals of the Neijing Suwen, which he expanded and edited substantially. This work was revisited by an imperial commission during the 11th century AD.

There were noted advances in Chinese medicine during the Middle Ages. Emperor Gaozong (r. 649–683) of the Tang Dynasty (618–907) commissioned the scholarly compilation of a materia medica in 657 that documented 833 medicinal substances taken from stones, minerals, metals, plants, herbs, animals, vegetables, fruits, and cereal crops. In his Bencao Tujing ('Illustrated Pharmacopoeia'), the scholar-official Su Song (1020–1101) not only systematically categorized herbs and minerals according to their pharmaceutical uses, but he also took an interest in zoology. For example, Su made systematic descriptions of animal species and the environmental regions they could be found, such as the freshwater crab species Eriocheir sinensis found in the Huai River running through Anhui, in waterways near the capital city, as well as reservoirs and marshes of Hebei.

Some sinologists see TCM of the last few centuries as part of the evolution of a culture, from shamans blaming illnesses on evil spirits to "proto-scientific" systems of correspondence. Any reference to supernatural forces is usually the result of romantic translations or poor understanding and will not be found in the Taoist-inspired classics of acupuncture such as the Huang Di Nei Jing. The system's development has, over its history, been analyzed both skeptically and extensively, and the practice and development of it has waxed and waned over the centuries and cultures through which it has travelled - yet the system has still survived thus far. It is true that the focus from the beginning has been on pragmatism - not necessarily understanding of the mechanisms of the actions - and that this has hindered its modern acceptance in the West. This, despite that there were times such as the early 18th century when "acupuncture and moxa were a matter of course in polite European society"

 

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