History of Chinese Medicine
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Chinese Medicine

Chinese doctor
Chinese village doctor treating a man by burning herbs
on his back (Song Dynasty, ca. 950 AD.,
now in National Palace Museum, Taiwan)

December 2016 - Doctors wrote the earliest known Chinese medical writing, The Recipes for Fifty-Two Ailments, about 186 BC. The recipes suggest chanting spells, herbal medicines, lancing (cutting the skin open) and cauterization (burning the flesh) as cures for things like warts and snake bites and possession by demons (mental illness).

By the time of the Han Dynasty, about 100 BC, China had become a major center of medical research and the home of some of the world's best doctors. These doctors wrote the Neijing, a book about medicine, organizing and explaining all of their treatments. The Neijing argues that earlier ideas about demons making you sick are wrong. According to the Neijing, you get sick when the yin and yang of your body are out of balance. Lifestyle choices like bad food, not exercising, stress, and your environment can knock you out of balance. This imbalance blocks your qi, your life-force, which is like Herophilus' idea of pneuma.

Doctors used a combination of acupuncture (using China's newly invented steel needles), moxibustion, herbal medicines, and exercises to restore your balance. (You might want to compare this to the Greek idea of four humors that developed in the 400s BC - it's possible that Chinese doctors knew about these Greek ideas, from travelers along the Silk Road, or the other way around.). Like Herophilus in Egypt 300 years earlier, at least one Han Dynasty doctor, about 23 AD, dissected a dead person to find out more about the human body. Another Han Dynasty doctor, Huo Tuo, apparently combined wine and hashish as anaesthesia for surgery, but the medical books Huo Tuo wrote have all been lost. Possibly Huo Tuo got medical information from Buddhist missionaries from India.

Chinese doctors figured out many ways to treat sick people. They used many medicines made of different herbs and tree barks. Though some of these were just guesses, other medicines worked well. By the 300s AD, Ge Hong was the first doctor in the world to write about a good medicine for malaria.

During the T'ang Dynasty, in the 600s AD, a doctor named Sun Simiao wrote more medical books. Sun listed thousands of recipes for different medicines, and also discussed how doctors should behave. He said, "A great doctor should not pay attention to status, wealth or age. He shouldn't ask whether the patient is beautiful or ugly, whether he is an enemy or friend, whether he is Chinese or a foreigner, or finally, whether he is uneducated or educated. A doctor should meet everyone on equal grounds. He should always treat patients as if they were his own family." About this time, Chinese cities began to have pay toilets, which helped to keep poop out of the streets so that fewer people caught dysentery. By the 1100s, under the Song Dynasty, there were even a few free public toilets.

Chinese doctors learned from Indian doctors about inoculation against smallpox, and by the 1500s AD, under the Ming Dynasty, Chinese doctors were inoculating many people to prevent smallpox from spreading.

Learn by doing: Make a Chinese abacus
More about Indian medicine
More about Central Asian medicine
More about Chinese science

Bibliography and further reading about Chinese medicine:

More about Chinese science
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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