The Origins of Traditional Chinese Medicine

The exact origins of traditional Chinese medicine are vague as much of its development occurred before written history. Human activity in China began over 1.7 million years ago. The use of plants as medicine can be dated back to origin of mankind. As early man experimented with new plants in search of food, he also began to discover the effects these plants had on the human body. The exact origin of acupuncture is not known, but the use of medical tools dates back well into the Stone Age.
As written history began, much was written about Chinese medicine. The words doctor (yi) and medicine (yao) appeared in written Chinese language at about 2500 BC. Many medical texts were written in ancient history, but most did not survive the test of time. We are not sure how much was really known about acupuncture and herbal medicine in very early times. The first medical books to appear were quite advanced and indicate that there was probably a great deal of medical development before them.
Although the use of herbal medicine and acupuncture tools began much earlier, the origin of the Chinese medical system is probably about 2,500 years old. The Yellow Emperor's Internal Classic (Huang Di Nei Jing) was written in about 200-300 BC and it included the first explanations of the pathological concept, diagnostic method, and treatment strategy. The theories described in this book and others to follow make up the system known as traditional Chinese medicine.
The History of Chinese Herbal Medicine
The use of plants as medicine is certainly as old as man itself, but the emperor Shen Nong (3494 BC) is accredited as being the first herbal doctor. He spent his entire lifetime in the pursuit of discovering new uses for plants. Unfortunately, his discoveries pre-date written record and his legacy were carried only through oral history. By 1500 BC, references to herbal medicine were inscribed onto bone. In the 3rd century BC, silk medical texts described the use of over 250 natural substances as medicine. The Chinese word for herbal medicine, 'ben cao', appeared in the Chinese language at about 500 BC. Very early in the Western Han Dynasty, the Pharmacopoeia of Sheng Nong (Sheng Nong Ben Cao Jing) was written, detailing all the known herbal medicine of the time. In the 2nd century AD, Hua Tou was using herbal anesthesia to conduct surgery. Li Shizhen (AD 1517 - 1593) wrote the General Outlines and Divisions of Herbal Medicine (Ben Cao Gang Mu) which is the greatest contribution to Chinese herbal medicine in history. The original work contained nearly 12,000 recipes including 1,900 medicinal substances. The modern Chinese pharmacopoeia now includes nearly 6,000 medicinal substances.
Modern Development of Traditional Chinese Medicine
The Revolution of 1911 marked the end of the Qing dynasty, and the beginning of the People's Republic of China. At this time of change, tradition was thrown to the wayside and Westernisation occurred heavily in China. Traditional medicine came to be viewed as crude and ineffectual compared to modern Western medicine. The instituted government demanded that traditional medicine be banned and took measures to stop its development and use. In rural communities, traditional medicine was still utilized to meet the demand for medical care.
The Communist movement began in 1921 with Mao Zedong being an influential leader. During the Long March of 1934-35, he and his army were separated from medical care. They were forced to rely on traditional medicine, which was illegal at the time, to care for their many health problems. Mao Zedong was so impressed with the results of this medicine, he later made great strides to revitalize medical tradition in China. In the 1940's and 1950's, Chairman Mao and his comrades directed the medical community to study and incorporate traditional Chinese medicine. A vast amounts of scientific research was conducted at this time and the use of acupuncture and herbal medicine became standard medicine in many hospitals.
Today, China embraces traditional Chinese medicine and it is practiced throughout the country. Most Chinese hospitals are fully integrated and provide traditional and modern medicine together. Major medical universities provide two tracks of study. Students may choose to study traditional or conventional medicine. Regardless of the course of study, doctors in China receive training in both forms of medicine. The only difference is that one form is stressed over the other. Medical research facilities continue to study traditional Chinese medicine and are creating strong evidence to support its use for both old and new medical problems.