Traditional Chinese medicine history

Updated:Mon, Oct 22, 2012 07:15 AM    Related:TCM history

TCM history

Traditional Chinese medicine, also known as TCM, includes a range of traditional medicine practices originating in China. Major TCM theories include: Yin-yang, the Five Phases, the human body Meridian/Channel system, Zang Fu organ theory, six confirmations, four levels, etc.


Traditional Chinese medicine, also known as TCM, includes a range of traditional medicine practices originating in China. Although well-accepted in the mainstream of medical care throughout East Asia, it is considered an alternative medical system in much of the Western world.

TCM practices include such treatments as Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture, dietary therapy, and both Tui na and Shiatsu massage. Qigong and Taijiquan are also closely associated with TCM. Major theories include: Yin-yang, the Five Phases, the human body Meridian/Channel system, Zang Fu organ theory, six confirmations, four levels, etc. Modern TCM was systematized in the 1950s under the People's Republic of China and Mao Zedong. Prior to this, Chinese medicine was mainly practiced within family lineage systems.

Ancient (classical) history

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.[1]

In legend, as a result of a dialogue with his minister Qibo (岐伯), the Yellow Emperor (2698 - 2596 BCE) is supposed by Chinese tradition to have composed his Neijing: Suwen or Inner Canon: Basic Questions (内经·素问). The book Huangdi Neijing (黄帝内经), 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 (张仲景/張仲景), 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 (甲乙经/甲乙經), 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.[2] 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.[3][4][5][6] 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.[7]

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.[8] 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[9] - 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"[10]

TCM describes the modern practice of Chinese medicine as a result of sweeping reforms that took place after 1950 in the People's Republic of China. The term "Classical Chinese medicine" (CCM) often refers to medical practices that rely on theories and methods dating from before the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1911).


The history of TCM can be summarized by a list of important doctors and books.

* Unknown, Huángdì nèijīng (黃帝內經/黄帝内经) (Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon) - Sùwèn (素问/素問) and Língshū (灵枢/靈樞). The earliest classic of TCM passed on to the present.

* Warring States Period (5th century BC to 221 BC): Silk manuscripts recording channels and collaterals, Zubi shiyi mai jiu jing (足臂十一脉灸经/足臂十一脈灸經) (Moxibustion Classic of the Eleven Channels of Legs and Arms), and Yinyang shiyi mai jiu jing (阴阳十一脉灸经/陰陽十一脈灸經) (Moxibustion Classic on the Eleven Yin and Yang Channels). The latter was part of a cache of texts found in Mawangdui in the 1970s.

* Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) to Three Kingdoms Period (220 - 280 AD):

o Zhenjiu zhenzhong jing (针灸枕中经/鍼灸枕中經) (Classic of Moxibustion and Acupuncture Preserved in a Pillow) by Huà Tuó (华佗/華佗).

o Shanghan zabing lun (伤寒杂病论/傷寒雜病論), which has since been split into two texts: the Shānghán lùn (伤寒论/傷寒論) ("Treatise on Cold Damage [Disorders]" - focusing on febrile conditions attributed to "Cold") and the Jingui yaolue (金匱要略) ("Essentials of the Golden Cabinet" - focusing on "miscellaneous illnesses") by Zhāng Zhòngjǐng (张仲景/張仲景).

* Jìn Dynasty (265-420): Zhēnjiǔ jiǎyǐ jīng (针灸甲乙经/鍼灸甲乙經) (Systematic Classic of Acupuncture and Moxibustion) by Huángfǔ Mì (皇甫谧/皇甫謐).

* Tang Dynasty (618–907)

o Beiji qianjin yaofang (备急千金要方/備急千金要方) (Emergency Formulas Worth a Thousand in Gold) and Qianjin yifang (千金翼方) (Supplement to the Formulas Worth a Thousand in Gold) by Sūn Sīmiǎo (孙思邈/孫思邈).

o Waitai miyao (外台秘要/外臺秘要) (Arcane Essentials from the Imperial Library) by Wang Tao (王焘/王燾).

* Song Dynasty (960 – 1279):

o Tóngrén shūxué zhēnjiǔ tújīng (铜人腧穴针灸图经/銅人腧穴鍼灸圖經) (Illustrated Manual of the Practice of Acupuncture and Moxibustion at (the Transmission) (and other) Acu-points, for use with the Bronze Figure) by Wáng Wéiyī (王惟一).

* Yuan Dynasty (1271 to 1368): Shísì jīng fāhuī (十四经发挥/十四經發揮) (Exposition of the Fourteen Channels) by Huá Shòu (滑寿/滑壽).

* Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644): golden age of acupuncture and moxibustion. Many famous doctors and books. To name only a few:

o Zhēnjiǔ dàquan (针灸大全/鍼灸大全) (A Complete Collection of Acupuncture and Moxibustion) by Xu Feng (徐凤/徐鳳).

o Zhēnjiǔ jùyīng fāhuī (针灸聚英发挥/鍼灸聚英發揮) (An Exemplary Collection of Acupuncture and Moxibustion and their Essentials) by Gāo Wǔ (高武).

o Zhēnjiǔ dàchéng (针灸大成/鍼灸大成) (Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion) by Yáng Jìzhōu (杨继洲/楊繼洲), completed in 1601.

o Běncǎo gāngmù (本草纲目/本草綱目) (Compendium of Materia Medica) by Lǐ Shízhēn (李时珍/李時珍), the most complete and comprehensive pre-modern herbal book (completed in 1578).

o Wenyi lun (温疫论/溫疫論), by Wu Youxing 吴有性 (1642).

* Qing Dynasty (1644–1912):

o Yizong jinjian (医宗金鉴/醫宗金鑒) (Golden Mirror of the Medical Tradition) compiled by Wu Qian (吴谦/吴謙) under imperial commission.

o Zhenjiu fengyuan (针灸逢源/鍼灸逢源) (The Source of Acupuncture and Moxibustion) by Li Xuechuan (李学川/李學川).

o Wenre lun (温热论/溫熱論), by Ye Tianshi (叶天士/業天士).

o Wenbing tiaobian (温病条辨/溫病條辨) (Systematized Identification of Warm-factor disorders) compiled by Wu Jutong (吴鞠通) in 1798.[11]


# ^ See Huang neijing Suwen, chapter 3.

# ^ Charles Benn, China's Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty. Oxford University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-19-517665-0), pp. 235.

# ^ Wu Jing-nuan. (2005). An Illustrated Chinese Materia Medica, p. 5.

# ^ Needham, Joseph. (1959). Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and the Earth (Science and Civilization in China, Vol. III), pp. 645, 648-649.

# ^ Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China: Volume 6, Biology and Biological Technology, Part 1, Botany. (Taipei: Caves Books Ltd., 1986), pp. 174–175.

# ^ Schafer, Edward H. "Orpiment and Realgar in Chinese Technology and Tradition," Journal of the American Oriental Society (Volume 75, Number 2, 1955): 73–89.

# ^ West, Stephen H. "Cilia, Scale and Bristle: The Consumption of Fish and Shellfish in The Eastern Capital of The Northern Song," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies (Volume 47, Number 2, 1987): 595–634.

# ^ "It could be said that the theory of the 5 Elements, and its application to medicine, marks the beginning of what one might call 'scientific' medicine and a departure from Shamanism. No longer do healers look for a supernatural cause of disease; they now observe Nature and, with a combination of the inductive and deductive method, the set out to find patterns within it, and, by extension, apply these in the interpretation of disease" - from an introductory textbook used by many acupuncture courses - Maciocia, Giovanni (1989). The Foundations of Chinese Medicine. Churchill Livingstone. p. 16. ISBN 0-443-03980-1.

# ^ Needham 2002, pp. 69–170, 262-302

# ^ Needham 2002, p. 296

# ^ An excerpt of this book is translated in



Share the TCM knowledge
Disclaimer:All the material presented in this article is for informational purposes only and should not take the place of a consultation from a trained medical professional.

Past coverage about: TCM history   Huangdi Neijing  

  • No articles are found.
comments powered by Disqus

Follow Us

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+

HugChina is a very popular English-language website about China, covering China stories, China pictures, China Facts, Learn Chinese, Sexy China, Chinese beauties, food, medicine, China forum, etc.