Traditional Chinese Medicine: A History of Herbs and Acupuncture

Acupuncture has long been used in conjunction with medicinal herbs for healing in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

| May/June 2001

The history of acupuncture begins in early China with the origins of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Archeological excavations reveal that humans lived in China more than 1 million years ago. These primitive hunter-gatherers spent most of their time on basic survival: hunting, locating and preparing plants for food, constructing shelters, and defending themselves. It’s easy to imagine that over time they would have sampled most of their local plants in their search for food and medicine. Eventually, an oral record took shape that identified those plants that made the best foods, those that were useful for building materials, those that treated illnesses and injuries, and especially those that were poisonous. By trial and error, a primitive form of herbal medicine and dietary therapy began to emerge through personal experiences.

What is Acupuncture?

A natural reaction to pain is to rub or press on the affected area. This response gradually evolved into a system of therapeutic manipulation. While pressing on sore spots, people discovered certain points on the body that had wide-ranging effects. They began to use pieces of sharpened bone or stone to further enhance the sensation, and the art of acupuncture began its course of evolution.

Acupuncture is the practice of using needles at specific points in the body to redirect natural energy and promote blood circulation. It is often used to remedy pain, swellings, and blood clotting problems, and in the TCM tradition it is also used to treat some internal and hormonal disorders such as swollen or tender organs and depression. Acupuncture treatments are often combined with medicinal herbs to further help the body heal.  

TCM’s recorded beginnings

The written record of Chinese medicine has evolved over the past 3,000 years. Archeological digs from the Shang dynasty (1000 b.c.) have revealed medical writings inscribed on scapulae (shoulder bones). Medical texts written on silk around 168 b.c. discuss diet, exercise, and herbal therapy. From this period, there is a legend of Shen Nong, the emperor of agriculture, who tasted 100 herbs daily to assess their qualities. The book attributed to him is known as the Classic of the Agriculture Emperor’s Materia Medica. When it was finally published, in the later Han dynasty (a.d. 25–220), it listed 365 medicines, consisting of 252 plants, sixty-seven animals, and forty-six minerals.

Between 200 b.c. and a.d. 400, the basic foundations of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) were put into written form. Physicians from all over China were compiling writings of the latest discoveries in acupuncture and herbal medicine. The most important medical book compiled during this period was the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic, purported to be a series of conversations between the Yellow Emperor, Huang Di, and his minister, Qi Bo—although many historians believe it’s a compilation of all the medical knowledge of that period. Remarkably, this ancient work is still used; it forms the foundation for the contemporary practice of TCM.

During the Ming dynasty, the most famous physician of the period was Li Shi Zheng (1518–1593), a generous healer who didn’t accept payment for his services. After reviving a prince’s son from a coma, he was appointed court physician and served in the Imperial Academy of Medicine. His most incredible achievement was his forty-year effort in writing the Ben Cao Gong Mu (general catalog of herbs), a monumental work published after his death. Consisting of fifty-two volumes at the time of its printing, it remains an important reference work for TCM practitioners.

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