The Origins of Chinese Medical Theories

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Where do the medical theories come from?

o The scholars wrote their theories in classical Chinese literature since ancient times.

o Some scholars were herbalists, but most were philosophers, historians and poets.

o Besides talking about healing, the classical theories also discuss the scholars’ philosophical views about the cosmos, nature, life and health.

Some examples of early classical work:

o “Historical Records”, Si Ma Qian. It talks about the earliest herbalist, Shen Nong, circa 3500 B.C., tasting various herbs and assessing their medicinal values.

o “Book of Interior” or “Nei Jing”, author unknown. This is the first comprehensive medical book appearing around 300 B.C. It mentions the Yellow Emperor, circa 3000 B.C., discussing the theory of The Five Elements and The Six Essences with one of his Ministers, thus establishing the Yellow Emperor as the legendary founder of Chinese medicine. This early book already pointed out the important concept of disease prevention in addition to cure.

o “Book on Medical Perplexities”, Bian Que. The author is known as the first acupuncturist circa 360 B.C. He also formalized the Chinese method of diagnosis consisting of four steps: observe, listen, question, and pulse read.

o The most famous herbalist, Hua Tuo, circa 160 A.D., did not leave any writings behind. However, his works were well documented in various classical texts, especially, “Annals of the Three States”. Hua Tuo is known to employ herbal anesthetics in minor surgeries, and to have invented the Five Styles of Chinese Boxing.

o “Shang Han Lun”, Zhang Zhong Jing. This is the first specialized book about infectious diseases, symptoms, and disease therapy (circa 200 A.D.)

o “Book on Pulse”, Wang Shu He. Chinese pulse diagnosis has been employed since ancient times. Wang was the first author to describe pulse methods circa 250 A.D., which were later introduced to neighboring countries such as Japan and Korea.

What are the strong points about Chinese medical theories?

o Over 4000 years of history

o Written by scholars of literary renown

o High literary, historical, and philosophical values besides medical

o In addition to healing and health, topics 跌打 include philosophy, history, cosmology, nature and life.

o Emphasis on prevention as much as cure.

What are the weak points about Chinese medical theories?

o Not written for ordinary people most of whom were illiterate

o Intended as a document or intellectual discourse for the Imperial Court, and the small audience of literary elite.

o Difficult to understand due to high abstraction

o Difficult to apply to so many real cases, which always require the healer to first understand the actual conditions


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