The Origins of Traditional Chinese Medicine


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three origins of TCM
Historical Background
Traditional Chinese medicine is over 2,000 years old. It originated in the region of eastern Asia that today includes China, Tibet, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. The first written Chinese medical treatises (as the West understands the term) date from the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220). Tribal shamans and holy men who lived as hermits in the mountains of China as early as 3500 B.C. practiced what was called the "Way of Long Life." This regimen included a diet based on herbs and other plants; kung-fu exercises; and special breathing techniques that were thought to improve vitality and life expectancy.
After the Han dynasty, the next great age of Chinese medicine was under the Tang emperors, who ruled from A.D. 608-A.D. 906. The first Tang emperor established China's first medical school in A.D. 629. Under the Song (A.D. 960–1279) and Ming (A.D. 1368–1644) dynasties, new medical schools were established, their curricula and qualifying examinations were standardized, and the traditional herbal prescriptions were written down and collected into encyclopedias. One important difference between the development of medicine in China and in the West is the greater interest in the West in surgical procedures and techniques. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the opening of China to the West led to the establishment of Western-style medical schools in Shanghai and other large cities, and a growing rivalry between the two traditions of medicine. In 1929 a group of Chinese physicians who had studied Western medicine petitioned the government to ban traditional Chinese medicine. This move was opposed, and by 1933 the Nationalist government appointed a chief justice of the Chinese Supreme Court to systematize and promote the traditional system of medicine. In contemporary China, both traditional and Western forms of medicine are practiced alongside each other.
Philosophical Background
Much of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) philosophy is derived from Taoist philosophy, and reflects the classical Chinese belief that individual human experiences express causative principles effective in the environment at all scales. These causative principles, whether material, essential, or spiritual, correlate as the expression of the fates decreed by heaven. The Chinese also believed in five organs (脏zang), corresponding to each of the five elements (fire, metal, water, wood, earth). Maladies were attributed to an imbalance of a particular 'Zang'. It is currently believed that acupuncture, and thus meridians, originated as a result of arrow wounds suffered in battles.
According to Chinese tradition, the Yellow Emperor (黄帝The first emperor in Chinese history) is supposed to have composed his Neijing Suwen (内经素问) or Table Basic Questions of Internal Medicine, also known as the Huangdi Neijing, as a result of a dialogue with his minister Ch'i Pai during his reign from 2696 to 2598 BC. Modern scholarly opinion holds that the extant text of this title was compiled by an eponymous scholar between the Chou and Han dynasties more than 2,000 years later than tradition reports, although some parts of the extant work may have originated as early as 1000 BC.
During the Han dynasty, Chang Chung-Ching, who was mayor of Chang-sha toward the end of the 2nd century AD, wrote a Treatise on Typhoid Fever, which contains the earliest known reference to Neijing Suwen. The Chin dynasty practitioner and advocate of acupuncture and moxibustion, Huang-fu Mi (215 - 282 AD), also quoted the Yellow Emperor in his Chia I Ching, ca. 265 AD. During the Tang dynasty, Wang Ping 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.
However, Classical Chinese Medicine (CCM) is notably different from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). CCM represents the medicine and its evolution through thousands of years. During the early 1900's, CCM developed the notion of germ theory: either oral- or food-borne pathogens. Concurrently, the West was also developing the same notion with the invention of the microscope, which provided proof of germs (bacteria) existing in food or in body fluids (mucus from a sneeze, for example). The West came to China along with the microscope in the 1930's, proving both theories valid.
However, the Nationalist government at that time elected to abandon and outlaw the practice of CCM as it did not want China to be left behind by scientific progress. For 30 years, CCM was forbidden in China and several people living outside major cities who did not have access to modern western hospitals, were prosecuted by the government for engaging in CCM. In the 1960's, Mao Zedong finally decided that the government could not continue to outlaw the use of CCM. He commissioned the top 10 doctors (M.D.'s) to take a survey of CCM and create a standardized format for its application. This standardized form is now known as TCM. TCM is what is taught in medical schools and practiced in China, most of Asia and Northern America. Unfortunately, with the standardization of TCM, the evolution of this incredible medicine (CCM) has come to a great halt, with no new development of theories.
Today, nearly all practitioners are educated in TCM. To learn CCM typically, one must be part of a family lineage of medicine. This family lineage protects its knowledge and practice to ensure the prosperity of future generations. If one knew the secret to cure all headaches, for example, sharing that information with another would threaten the future success of one's lineage. In addition, much of the classical materials is written in a manner which is elusive, to dissuade and confuse novices from applying the remedies correctly (for example, texts written without punctuation). Recently, there has been a resurgence in interest in CCM as a specialty in China, Europe, and United States. Jeffrey Yuen, an 88th generation of a sect of CCM has been at the forefront of this renewed interest in CCM.
Contact with Western culture and medicine has not displaced TCM. While there may be many sociological and anthropological factors involved in the persistent practice, two reasons are most obvious in the westward spread of TCM in recent decades. Firstly, TCM practices are often very effective, sometimes offering palliative efficacy where the best practices of Western medicine fail, especially for routine ailments such as flu and allergies, and managing to avoid the toxicity of chemically composed medicines. Secondly, TCM provides the only available care when resources are inadequate to import Western medical technologies.
TCM formed part of the barefoot doctor program in the People's Republic of China, which extended public health into rural areas. A large motivation behind the interest in TCM by both individuals in China and the PRC government is that the cost of training a TCM practitioner and staffing a TCM hospital is considerably less than that of a practitioner of Western medicine; hence TCM has been seen as an integral part of extending health services in China.
Attitudes toward TCM in China have been strongly influenced by Marxism and the May Fourth Movement. The notion of supernatural forces runs counter to the Marxist belief in dialectical materialism and strikes many Chinese as feudalistic and superstitious. At the same time, there is the notion of learning from the masses, and TCM is seen as the distillation of thousands of years of experiences which should be respected and understood. Modern Chinese descriptions of traditional Chinese medicine tend to deemphasize the cosmological aspects of TCM and emphasize its compatibility with modern science and technology.

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