An Historical Perspective in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Paul L. Reller L.Ac. / Last Updated: August 03, 2017


The histories of Traditional European medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine run a parallel course

In Europe, modern medicine is rooted in the Greek civilizations, and the era of Greek medicine from about 300 BC gives us some of the earliest developed texts that are preserved today, just as in China. The Greek physicians that we hail as the patriarchs of modern medicine, Hippocrates, Galen, Democritus, et al, were proponents of traditional medicine as well as the organizers of modern medical scientific principles. Hippocrates declared that the physician should first do no harm, utilizing conservative medicine when possible, such as nutrient or dietary medicine, and physiotherapies, instead of using harsher medical treatments first. These early Greek physicians also talked of the importance of philosophy and natural science in the field of medicine, telling us that the modern physician must always root their work in an understanding of philosophy and natural science. This historical account of European medical science mirrors that of China, and Traditional Chinese Medicine reflects these concepts, incorporating Daoism, natural science and nutrient medicine into a conservative care that seeks to integrate with and complement modern medical discoveries. Unfortunately, medicine has always been a lucrative business, and with business comes competition. With competition comes the putting down of the competitor, and TCM has always struggled to survive this competition. The reason why TCM has survived, while the traditional medicines of Europe and North America were almost forgotten in the twentieth century, is that China had systematized the science of TCM so thoroughly, due to the influence of Confucius, and because the government has always supported Complementary and Integrative Medicine in China, and recognized its importance to public health.

There is evidence that the theories and practice of acupuncture were shared with European culture very early in history. A body that was well preserved in a glacier in the Alpine Oetz valley between Austria and Italy was discovered in 1991, and dated to 3200 BC. The body, called the Tyrolean Neolithic man (Otzi the iceman), had 15 groups of simple tattoos marking points on the skin that subsequently were compared to classic Chinese acupuncture points. Subsequent study of this early preserved human has been extensive, and researchers have now noted that less dramatic tattooed points were also evident, with the total now at 61 points, in patterns similar to modern point prescriptions in acupuncture, on the wrists, elbows, ankles, knees, calves, low back and lower thoracic areas. Experts found that 80 percent of these points corresponded to the Chinese acupuncture points used today. Examination found that this person suffered from extensive arthritis, injuries, cardiovascular disease and chronic infection, and it is speculated that a physician made the simple tattoos so that these points could be stimulated by others to treat the diseases. The tattoos did not appear ornamental, and the tattooed dots lay along acupuncture meridian lines and accurately portrayed current classic acupuncture point locations. Modern acupuncture experts have confirmed that the tattooed points correspond to the acupuncture points that would be chosen today to treat the diseases discovered in the Tyrolean iceman.

While much skepticism from modern medicine was elicited with this find, it is now widely acknowledged, after 20 years, that this is compelling evidence of the practice of TCM even in Europe by 3200 BC. Further study of these tattoo markings found that they were made from fireplace soot that contained crystals of precious stone, implying that the material for the tattoos was associated with early alchemical braziers. Early alchemists sought out these precious minerals as ingredients for medicinal elixirs. It is possible that the needles used to create these markings were early examples of acupuncture needles, and that they were dipped into charred herbal woods mixed with precious minerals to deliver an alchemical effect along with the acupuncture needling. In fact, as this web article proves, stone needle points made of precious stones were used in China at this time in history, and the minerals found in the tattooed points of the Tyrolean man included almandine, or ferrous aluminum silicon oxide, a very hard crystalline stone that is sometimes found in shards, and quartz, which could have been used as stone needles. The mineral residues found in the preserved skin at these tattoo points may even represent the use of stone needle points dipped in alchemical elixir, with traces of calcium phosphate, or apatite, quartz, and vivianite, or hydrated iron phosphate. The points discovered were a mix of dots, minute parallel lines, and crosses, consistent with the classic 9 needles in Chinese history, most of which were not thin points, but tools to press into the skin or to make small cuts. To view evidence of the Tyrolean Man studies click here: and here:

We see that there is a rich history of these traditional medical sciences in Europe as well as Asia and Africa that was not dissimilar, even with the use of needle stimulation and alchemical mineral elixirs. We now have proof that the culture and technology was not separated into neat little East-West boxes as our historians have portrayed, and with mapping of the human genome we have discovered the amazing intermingling of peoples across Eurasia and Africa at a very early time in human history, and even evidence of Eurasian migration to the Americas. For instance, in Northern Africa, the heart of great civilizations of the Nubian, Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Bantu, genome mapping has revealed that a majority of the present population has Eurasian genes. Indeed, evidence with DNA mapping in the last decade points to the spread of humanity from Eurasia back to Africa, the geographical source for homo sapiens, even before 1000 BCE. Ron Pinhasi, a renowned archeologist from the University College Dublin, and an expert on archeological DNA, and Ryan L. Raaum, an anthropological geneticist at Lehman College of the City University of New York, believe that migration back into Africa from Europe and Asia occurred well before 1000 CE, the timeline of the first proof with DNA analysis of the many genes from Eurasian humans in the African population. These experts have shown that DNA from an Ethiopian human from about 2500 BCE closely resembles that of the present day Ethiopian Ari tribes people, but that the Ari have genetic evidence suggesting that their people mixed with humans outside of Africa as well at a very early date in history. The lack of sudden archeological change in this time period believed to be the time of re-entry of Eurasians back to the African continent points to the fact that human civilization from Europe and Asia migrated back to Northern Africa well before this date of 1000 BCE, and did so gradually. Sharing of technology at this time in history would be important for survival and development. Medical science was an important part of human technology, and surely any practice of needle stimulation and mineral elixir use that worked would migrate as well, explaining the historic evidence of acupuncture in Northern Africa in early civilization. The philosophy, concepts, practices and empirical evidence of effects and outcomes of Traditional Medicine were shared across the world. Unfortunately, in much of the modern world this rich medical history has been largely destroyed, rather than appreciated and integrated with modern medical sciences.

Preservation and advancement of these traditional medical sciences has garnered many advances in medical history, though, and is fairly well preserved in Asia. In the United States we still have not fully recognized that support for traditional medical science is in the best interests of public welfare, though. In the early part of the twentieth century a large majority of the population still declared that traditional American herbalism was their primary medical therapy, and red striped barber poles were signs that the barber offered simple traditional therapies with needle stimulation and gentle bleeding of points. The medical sciences were obviously well developed in the native populations of the Americas, and a number of European American doctors did integrate this medical science, such as the physician Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1784-1841), who founded the Eclectic School of Medicine, as well as Samuel Thompson (1769-1843), a botanist and herbalist who founded the practice known as Thomsonian Medicine. To see a history of these integrated medicines in the United States, click here: .

These medical schools, such as the Eclectic School, which integrated traditional medicine of the Americas with modern medicine, became very popular, because they presented safe and preventive medicine, yet both were attacked and legally challenged by proponents of modern allopathic medicine, despite the well known risks and adverse effects of these modern medical practices. In the 19th century so-called 'Black Laws' were created in many states against these medical practices, equated with laws that also barred Negroes from practicing medicine at all. In the 20th century these political practices continued, sponsored by the growing power of the American Medical Association (AMA), finally limited the use of the term Medical Doctor to those who graduated from a university medical school, which excluded African-Americans, women, Native Americans, and the teaching of integrated medical care and traditional herbal medicine. In response, the National Medical Association formed (NMA), but did not have the institutional acceptance of the AMA, which insured that the NMA would not be accepted by most hospitals and business interests. It was not until 2008 that the AMA finally formally apologized for these discriminatory practices. Allopathic medical businesses all but eliminated these integrated traditional medicines and destroyed much of the documentation of these practices by the mid-20th century with the help of government laws initiated with moneyed lobbying. Modern medicine is perhaps the biggest lobbyist in our governments today, and modern medicine now consumes about a fifth of our gross national product, with about $8000 spent per person each year, nearly a fifth of the average income. Traditional Complementary and Integrative Medicine (CIM) still has no significant lobbying effort underway. Perhaps because of this, inexpensive Complementary Medicine is making a comeback, despite a significant propaganda campaign for more than a century portraying this science as quackery and inferior to allopathic medicine, and officially terming it "alternative" medicine, purposefully grouping proven medical treatments with charlatan potions and superficial types of faith and psychic healing, implying that there was no real difference. Instead of clarifying and regulating Complementary Medicine, separating the dubious treatments from the proven, U.S. law in the early twentieth century was designed to eliminate all Complementary Medicine, a very cynical approach that only benefited the rich and powerful medical businesses, not the public. Today, this type of monopoly has resulted in unaffordable healthcare.

Our civilization is now regaining an interest in natural science and natural medicine. The threat of modern science and the destructive nature of some of our modern technology is moving the population to explore green technology, and understanding that preservation of a natural balance and homeostasis in the environment is indeed important, is finally taking hold. Inside our bodies we also need to develop a greater respect for green technology, and this is where TCM, and the preservation and development over many centuries, of traditional medical approaches, comes into play. As our civilization takes up a renewed interest in TCM, a renewed interest in the history of this science is also seen. Unfortunately, modern historians have been loathe to recognize and support the science and history of TCM, and the historical bias of modern science versus ancient medicine is apparent when we look for the actual history of TCM. This article presents what is readily available if you look for historical documentation, though, and reveals that the origins of acupuncture, or needle stimulation, as well as herbal medicine, nutrient medicine, and natural physiotherapies, are not a modern phenomenon, but indeed go back to very early civilization, and have worked well for a number of millenia. This article is long and detailed, but reveals aspects of the history of TCM that are fascinating.

The struggle of TCM to be recognized both as a modern medical science and historically recognized as well

Historically, China dated the sources of early foundation texts of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Inner Canon of Huang Di, and the smaller Conversations on Female Health Problems between Huang Di and a young woman, to about 2800 BC, which was believed to be the foundation era of the modern Chinese civilization. These texts were in the form of oral conversations between the Sovereign Huang Di and Qi Bo, a prominent physician, and in the second book, a young woman discussing health problems specific to females, perhaps a physician herself, specializing in women's health. The writing form, as a conversation, reflects the fact that these prehistorical and early historical texts were handed down through generations as oral histories in a time when written texts were rare. Since these were originally oral histories, the actual written versions of the Inner Canon (Nei Jing de Huang Qi, Su Wen and Ling Shu) that were preserved on silk paper, date back only to about 300-100 BC, and reflect both the organized practice of the Qin and Han Dynasty physicians, and also their respect for the ancient history and development of the science in the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE). The short-lived Qin Dynasty was famous for consolidating information to a central state to create an empire and try to stop warring states, and also famous for the destruction of many texts and versions of classic texts in private collections. Natural deterioration of the materials that earlier texts were written on is also responsible for a lack of artifacts. There were no uniform versions of these classic texts, or Jing, before the printing press was invented in the third century AD, but instead a confusing array of individualized versions. The Han Dynasty, created by a member of the peasant class, or working class, overthrowing the Qin Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, started in 221 BCE, and was the source for many of the preserved foundation texts of these Jing, or classic canons of the culture and science. The modern version of the Huang Di Nei Jing was not preserved from this time period of the Qin and Han dynasties, though, but parts of this text are seen in the few preserved medical texts that we have from this time period, especially the preserved texts found in the Mawanghui tombs in 1972.

The very existence of the Yellow Emperor (as he is called), Huang Di, had been called in to question by historians, with many historians referring to this person as a mythological figure. In Chinese history, though, Xuanyuan Huangdi is said to have been born around 2704 BC, and ruled what was then China in 2697 BC. Huang Di is said to be one of the founding Patriarchs of modern Chinese civilization, introducing architectural and mechanical designs in buildings, boats and carriages, and implements of war, and leading a great army to defeat the barbarian hordes in what is now Shanxi. He is also credited with introducing a standard form of writing, with Chinese characters, a system of government, and the use of standardized coin money. His wife, Lei Zu, was reputed to have discovered silk production, or sericulture, growing silkworms for their thread. This elaborate order of government and society was purported to have come into his mind through meditation, as a lucid dream. Huang Di is also said to have advanced natural science, later called Daoism, with many realizations also coming in these visions, or lucid dreams, not unlike the visionary lucid dreams of Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, and Frederick August Kekule, in our modern era, who all said that they used meditative lucid dreams to realize some of the most important scientific concepts in human history. Western Eurocentric historians will discount these aspects of Chinese history as a primitive belief in "magic", but no such characterization is seen in the historical accounts of these great Western modern scientists.

The name of Huang Di was applied to most of the important books of alchemical science and Daoism as well, and he is said to have advanced Daoist medical science greatly, hence the first comprehensive text, or canon, of this medical science is called Nei Jing de Huang Di. Myths were created to pass oral history of this great ruler, along with the other early rulers in China, Fu Xi, Nu Wa, Shen Nong, Sui Ren, Zhu Rong, Gong Gong, Zhuan Xu, Emperor Ku, Emperor Yao, Shun, Shao Hao, Tai Hao and the Yan Emperor. Fu Xi, Nu Wa and Shen Nong are grouped as the 3 sovereigns, but various historical texts also group Fu Xi, Shen Nong and Huang Di as the 3 essential sovereigns, or creators of modern Chinese culture. This myth making was similar to the stories of the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs and other rulers in Western histories, as well as the Greek gods, who were often real humans of great merit that were mythologized. Unlike the Egyptian Pharaohs, though, Western historians continue to repeat that these Chinese myths, or elaborate oral histories of great personages, show that Huang Di was not a real person. The blatant Eurocentricity and bias is evident with this perspective, yet seldom questioned in Europe or America. The medical specialty of TCM continues to be plagued by this Eurocentric bias, which has portrayed the specialty in the modern era as unscientific, and based in beliefs of shamanism and "magical" concepts.

This important early comprehensive text of what we now call Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the Nei Jing de Huang Di, divided into the texts called the Su Wen and Ling Shu, is translated by the famed Cambridge historian Joseph Needham as 'A Comprehensive Text or Canon (Jing) of Corporeal Medicine (Nei) as told to the Patriarch of our civilization, Huang Di'. The Chinese character for Nei is usually translated as 'inner', but Dr. Needham stresses repeatedly in his writings that this translation creates misconceptions of its meaning. The characters for Nei and Wai are seen in most great texts, or canons, of almost all aspects of early Chinese civilization, but reflect concepts much more elaborate than simply 'inner" and "outer". Dr. Needham stresses in his 6th volume of Science and Civilization in China that the character Nei "means everything this-worldly, rational, practical, concrete, repeatable, verifiable, in a word, scientific". The companion character Wai "means everything other-worldly, everything to do with gods and spirits, sages and immortals, everything exceptional, miraculous, strange, uncanny, unearthly, extra-mundane and extra-corporeal or incorporeal (beyond the physical body or form)". These ancient terms were somewhat equivalent to our modern terms physical and meta-physical, but much more elaborate, making a true understanding of the foundation text of TCM difficult for us, as well as the historical divisions in TCM history of the practices of Nei Dan and Wai Dan, divisions of the broad science that we now call 'alchemy' in modern history. Nei Dan became a realm of medical science devoted to public health with practices of meditation, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, yoga-like calisthenics, dietary regimens, and mind-body practices that were conceptual and behavioral. Paul Unschuldt, noted Chinese historian, noted that perhaps the earliest intact record of the early TCM medical texts, surviving the purges of books between the Han and Qin dynasties, dates to about 32 AD (CE). This listing of the main historical texts of TCM lists not only the Nei Jing de Huang Di, but the Wai Jing de Huang Di, a text of about twice the number of chapters as the Nei Jing. Similarly, the other main medical texts in TCM included the Bian Que Nei Jing and the Bian Que Wai Jing, the Bai Shi Nei Jing and the Bai Shi Wai Jing, and the Pang Bian. Obviously, the importance of the non-corporeal (Wai) was very important to clinical practice, but lost today, we have little historical perspective, at least in the West, as to the actual meaning of this Wai, or non-corporeal science. We might jump to the conclusion that the division of the medical science into Nei and Wai meant that many physicians practiced a 'spiritual medicine', but study of these surviving texts does not point to this.

The divisions of this text, the Nei Jing de Huang Di, which is certainly not the only medical text on this subject of the specialty of TCM in early Chinese history, but perhaps the most important, are called the Su Wen, or "simple questions", and the Ling Shu, or "pivotal central" connection to non-corporeal, or spiritual, medicine, typically translated as the 'Spiritual Pivot'. Dr. Needham realized that even the common English translation of the name of this text was very revealing of the focus of early physicians in this realm, and reflected a mind-body approach to medicine, incorporating more direct therapies and diagnoses of purely physical, or corporeal, medicine to utilization of acupuncture, physiotherapies, and herbal/nutrient medicine, as well as patient counseling and attention to mental and spiritual health, in addressing the psychological and spiritual aspects of disease, in addition to the purely physical causes and manifestations. This division of thought, addressing the duality of physical and meta-physical, or psychological and spiritual, or energetic aspects, was a common theme in this fundamental era of Chinese thought, and is partly the reason why the early TCM physicians used the term Yin and Yang so often.

This comprehensive, thoughtful, and holistic approach to medicine is once again being re-initiated in modern medicine in the movements toward a 'patient centered approach' and utilization of 'mind-body medicine'. From the perspective of a Eurocentic past view of these texts and medicine, which Dr. Needham acknowledged as the main stumbling block to an honest European and American historical view of Chinese history, though, we were told that this approach involved shamanistic voodoo, or magic, and early primitive misconceptions of actual disease mechanisms.These same historical beliefs of the non-corporeal nature of disease as part of an explanation of cause and manifestation were part of medical history in Europe, yet Western historians do not continue to deride the foundations of modern Western medical science as based in magic and 'shamanism'. Instead, Western historians emphasize the objective scientific perspective in medicine that purportedly was 'created' in Europe and Greek civilization. Dr. Needham, in his life work studying Chinese history, science and civilization, emphasized that he realized early in his career that many of the most important aspects of this European science and civilization originated not in Greece, but in China. We apparently are still engaged in this Eurocentric bias in the 21st century, and nothing exemplifies this better than our view of TCM. Hopefully, some of the more holistic concepts in European medical history, such as the descriptive "Philosophical Medicine" of Paracelsus, will soon have its heyday as well. Certainly, great minds in the 20th century, such as Carl Jung, Otto Rank, and Wilhelm Reich, were involved in a more holistic view of medicine that incorporated the meta-physical as well as the physical reality.

The attempts of Western historians to refer to Traditional Chinese Medicine as shamanism and magic is completely revealing of the Eurocentric historical bias. While the Huang Di Nei Jing does not mention magic or shamanism in its broad scope, many other ancient medical texts refer to popular medical practices utilizing spoken incantations and herbal talismans, usually under the umbrella of Qi Gong therapies. The word Shen is singled out by historians that suggest that the medicine was rooted in magic or shamanism. Now the written character for Shen 神 has eleven meanings ascribed in the modern authoritative historical Chinese dictionary, the Hanyu Dazidian. One of these definitions is magical, supernatural, miraculous, mysterious, or abstruse. On the other hand, other definitions define the written character as consciousness, mind, mental faculties, or demeanor, and actions of administering or governing. When the author of medical texts uses this written character of Shen, which of these do you think they are probably referring to, magic or mind-body? The official historical definitions of Shen also include legendary spirits and gods, the creator of all things, and the supreme being. Is it logical to assume, then, that this word would imply a religious significance or belief in magical legendary gods in the TCM medical texts? Many historians parrot such absurd remarks, though, without any real proof that the physicians that wrote these medical texts, or Daoists as a whole, had any real belief in magic or shamanism. Famous TCM physicians have been found to decry the belief in magic, or sorcery. In the text Yi Xue Ru Men, or "Basics of Medical Studies", the famed TCM physician from about 300 BCE, Bian Que (Qin Yueren) was quoted as stating that he could happily "cure all but six diseases: wealth that is too heavy for a person too light; pride, which holds reason in contempt; inability to earn a living; insufficiency of yin and yang (substance and function); emaciation to the extent that treatment cannot be supported (by the body); and most of all, belief in sorcerers, which doubles the lack of faith in doctors." Such historic quotes reveal that even in 300 BCE, TCM physicians were aware of the mistaken criticism that practices such as needle stimulation and Qi Gong involved magic. It is shameful that modern scientists and medical doctors still parrot these beliefs. To see historical artifacts and read a lecture on this factual history of acupuncture, by the esteemed Professor Kan-Wen Ma to the British Medical Acupuncture Society in 2000, click here:

In recent years there has been an effort by various modern historians to state that proof of a developed science of Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture can only be definitively dated to this time of the earliest preserved intact text of this single medical tome, the Nei Jing. This controversy concerning proof of the dating of the science is illuminating sociopolitically, but ignores a rich documented history of medical philosophy, approach, and treatment technique that led to the preserved texts that we study today, of which there are many. A serious look at the rich history of TCM produces a fascinating and illuminating set of facts that reveal why this practice of needle trigger point stimulation, herbal medicine, Daoist science, preventative medicine, physiotherapies, and energetic medicine has been practiced and preserved for so many thousands of years despite advances of modern science and medical practices. The reasons for the continued popularity of these ancient medical treatments include both their effectiveness and the complex and amazing natural science, history and philosophy that forms the foundations of TCM. The intelligence and focus of these early Complementary and Integrative Medicine (CIM) physicians also preserves the fact that essentially, human medical science must always remain focused on the quantum field of homeostatic mechanisms of health and environmental health, even while pursuing new allopathic technology. Integration of an holistic approach with an allopathic approach is at the heart of the TCM specialty, and this is sorely needed today, just as it was in early Chinese history.

Throughout the world, ancient wisdom and traditional practice of medicine has systematically been ridiculed and rejected as new scientific advances have created modern techniques and medicines that accompany new theories. TCM has proven to be a survivor of this process of rejecting the old to support the new. Other ancient medicines have survived, especially in Africa and India, but have not achieved the status that acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine now enjoys in the Western developed cultures of Europe and the United States. Much of this rejection of ancient theories and practices of medicine has been driven by an economy of competition for the control of medical spending, which is always guaranteed to be a significant part of the economy of any modern culture. Cultural bias and a history of empire and conquest has also played a role, as well as religious prohibition. Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture has been assaulted by modern medicine and cultural bias a number of times throughout its history, even banned in China during the period of strong British influence over the Guomintang government, yet the strength of this Complementary medical science, both in its effectiveness as well as its unique theories, has resulted in worldwide scientific validation and popular support today. Today, acupuncture is the most studied and proven manual medical technique in the world because of the numerous challenges to its validity, and scientific study of herbal medicine, which was the basis for the modern chemical pharmaceutical industry, has also expanded exponentially and is now the basis for a new approach in pharmaceuticals called biologics.

Existence, the way of things, needs thought, conceiving of things.

Not simply thinking of, but a thought that conceives or creates, Imaginative (Gnosis).

The Naming (Logos) emphasizes what it is or is reputed to be.

Not simply naming, but a naming that creates its being.

Before desiring there is nothingness.

Before common belief in things is nothingness.

Desire utilizes the conception of the nature of things such as to create their subtlety.

- Simple, literal translation of the first verse of the Dao De Jing of Lao Zi