History of Chinese Medicine

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Chinese painting of a doctor treating a patient: chinese medicine

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

What’s the earliest Chinese medical book?

Doctors wrote the earliest known Chinese medical writing, The Recipes for Fifty-Two Ailments, about 186 BC, around the beginning of the Han Dynasty.

The recipes suggest chanting spells, herbal medicines, lancing (cutting the skin open) and cauterization (burning the flesh).

Possession by demons

In this book, Chinese medicine was supposed to cure things like warts and snake bites and possession by demons (mental illness).

Another book of Chinese medicine: the Neijing

By about 100 BC, China had become a major center of medical research. It was the home of some of the world’s best doctors. These doctors wrote the Neijing, a book about Chinese medicine. The book organized and explained all of their treatments. The Neijing argues that earlier ideas about demons making you sick are wrong.

What are yin and yang and qi?

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. It’s like Herophilus‘ idea of pneuma.

(More about yin and yang)

How did Chinese doctors treat patients?

Doctors used a combination of acupuncture (using China’s newly invented steel needles), moxibustion, herbal medicines, and exercises to restore your balance.

(More about acupuncture needles)

(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.).

(More about Greek medicine)

Another Han Dynasty doctor, Huo Tuo, apparently combined wine and hashish as anaesthesia for surgery. Sadly, the medical books Huo Tuo wrote have all been lost. Possibly Huo Tuo got medical information from Buddhist missionaries from India.

Did Chinese doctors do human dissections?

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.

(More about Herophilus’ dissections)

Ge Hong discovers a treatment for malaria

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.

(More about malaria)

A third book of Chinese medicine: Sun Simiao

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.”

Clean water and toilets help to save lives

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.

(More about sewage in China)

Chinese doctors use inoculation against smallpox

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.

(More about smallpox)

Looking for a second source to cite? Check out this excellent article from China Highlights.

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

Bibliography and further reading about Chinese medicine:

More about Chinese science
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By |2018-09-12T20:51:58+00:00June 7th, 2017|China, Science|8 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. History of Chinese Medicine. Quatr.us Study Guides, June 7, 2017. Web. September 18, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. 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, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

8 Comments

  1. Not Your ...... September 12, 2018 at 7:08 pm - Reply

    when was this page first published?

    • Karen Carr September 12, 2018 at 8:51 pm

      Citation information is below the article, above the comments.

  2. james September 5, 2018 at 6:00 pm - Reply

    thx for the help it was something new to me

    • Karen Carr September 6, 2018 at 5:18 am

      Hi James! You’re very welcome!

  3. Chris June 14, 2018 at 4:34 pm - Reply

    this really helped me with a final project. Thanks!

    • Karen Carr June 14, 2018 at 10:00 pm

      I’m glad we could help, Chris! Good luck with your project!

  4. Katlyn May 18, 2018 at 5:59 am - Reply

    That is a amazing history

    • Karen Carr May 18, 2018 at 8:59 am

      Thanks, Katlyn!

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