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A Brief History of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Asian medicine began in China over 5,000 years ago. Today, it's practiced the world over. Usually known as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), its experience is gathered from millennia of daily use as well as through countless lifetimes of insight and experimentation. It is not a folk medicine, but rather a complete medical system, using the perceived laws of nature as rules for understanding disharmony and disease. Libraries filled with books, ancient and modern, attest to the effort and accumulated wisdom of this still vital medical system.

The oldest known book about Chinese medicine is The Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic. It was compiled before 200 BC. It's a summary of medical ideas and techniques that were in use long before the second century BC.

Today, Chinese medicine has expanded far beyond the Inner Classic. Countless variations and innovations have appeared. But some principles are unchanging. These root principles, such as yin and yang, describe natural laws, the laws your body must ultimately obey. These root principles endow Chinese herbs with a unique knowledge making it, in some ways, far more evolved than modern technological medicine.  

Early History of TCM Through Books
Traditional Chinese Medicine is more than 5,000 years old. The earliest herbal text, The Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic,  is also known as Plain Questions and the Canon of Acupuncture.  The book summarizes and systematizes the previous millennia of herbal experience and deals with the anatomy and physiology of the human body. This work lays the foundation for TCM.

Later important books also represent milestones in the history of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). They include:

The Herbal is the earliest classic on herbs. This Materia Medica was handed down from the Qin and Han dynasties (221 B.C--220 A.D.). It is the summary of pharmaceutical knowledge known before the Han. It discuss 365 kinds of drugs and offers the pharmacological theory of "JUN, CHEN, ZUO and SHI" (monarch, minister, assistant and guide) indicating the actions of drugs in a prescription.

Treatise on Febrile Diseases and Miscellaneous Diseases ZHANG ZHONG JING (300 A.D). Differentiates febrile diseases according to the theory of six channels, miscellaneous diseases according to pathological changes of viscera and. Establishes diagnosis based on overall analysis of signs and symptoms. Its 269 prescriptions make up the basis for modern clinical practice.

Classic of Acupuncture and Moxibustion HUANG FU MI (215--282 A.D.), 12 volumes, 128 chapters. The earliest classic specific to acupuncture and moxibustion in China. It summarizes information on the channels and collaterals, acupuncture points, needle manipulation, and contraindication. It lists the total number of the acupuncture points as 349, and discusses the therapeutic properties of each point.

General Treatise on the Causes and Symptoms of Disease 610 A.D., CHAO YUAN FANG, together with others. The earliest classic on etiology and syndrome. 50 volumes, divided into 67 categories, and list 1,700 syndromes. It expounds on the pathology, signs and symptoms of various diseases, surgery, gynecology, and pediatrics.

Prescriptions Worth a Thousand Gold for Emergencies SUN SI MIAO 581-682 A.D. 30 volumes and 5,300 prescriptions. Also deals with acupuncture, moxibustion, diet therapy, prevention, and health preservation. Outstanding treatment of deficiency diseases.

The Medical Secrets of An Official WANG TAO 752 A.D. 40 volumes, introduces 6,000 prescriptions. A master's compendium of prescriptions available before the Tang dynasty.


© Joel Harvey Schreck


Information about Chinese medicine on this site is provided for educational purposes and is not meant to substitute for the advice of your own physician or other medical professional. Information and statements regarding dietary supplements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.