Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has a long and rich history, and is one of the oldest, literate and continuously practiced forms of medicine in the world. It evolved from over 2000 years of clinical observations and reflects the Chinese cultural legacy and values of longevity and wellness.
The first written documentation on traditional Chinese medicine is the Hung-Di Nei-Jing (Yellow Emperor’s Cannon of Internal Medicine). It is the oldest medical textbook in the world, originating between 800 BCE and 200 BCE. Yellow Emperor’s Cannon of Internal Medicine lays the primary foundation for the theories and treatments of Chinese medicine.
Some of the most renowned discoveries of Chinese medicine were made during the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BCE). The theoretical foundations of yin and yang, the five elements, the pathogenic factors of external environment as a cause of disease, and a broader understanding of acupuncture and the meridians were established at this time. Following are six physicians and well-known scholars who have made significant contributions to medicine.
The most famous of China’s physicians, Zhang Zhongjing lived during the Eastern Han dynasty and was known for his remarkable medical skill and significant contribution to traditional Chinese medicine. He wrote a medical masterpiece entitled Shanghan Zabing Lun or “Treatise on Febrile Diseases”. To date, Zhongjing’s theory and prescriptions are still of great medical value and are the standard reference work for traditional Chinese medicine, including moxibustion, acupuncture, and herbal medicine.
Another famous physician of traditional Chinese medicine during the Eastern Han period was Hua To. Hua To developed the use of anesthesia in surgery, and further developed the Chinese’s knowledge of anatomy. He was the first person who used narcotic drugs in the world, preceding the West about 1600-1700 years.
During the Sui Dynasty, Chao Yuanfang, together with others, compiled a book called the Zhubing Yuanhou Zonglun (The General Treatise on the Causes and Symptoms of Disease). This book consisted of 50 volumes, listed 1,700 syndromes, and had a strong influence on the later development of medicine, expounding on the pathology, signs and symptoms of various diseases, surgery, gynecology, and pediatrics.
Another well-known scholar of Chinese medicine, Wang Tao wrote a book called Waitai Miyao (The Medical Secrets of An Official). This book consisted of 40 volumes, 1,104 categories, and discussed over 6,000 herbal prescriptions.
The most famous physician of the Tang Dynasty, Sun Simiao devoted his whole life to Chinese medicine. He had mastered the Chinese Classics by the age of 20 and was crowned the “King of Herbal Medicine.” It was during the Tang Dynasty (618 –907 CE) when China’s first school of medicine was established.
One of the greatest physicians and pharmacologists of his time, Li Shizhen contributed to medicine his forty-year work, the epic Ben Cao Gang-mu (The Compendium of Materia Medica). This book details more than 1,800 drugs, includes 1,100 illustrations, 11,000 prescriptions, and records 1,094 herbs detailing their type, form, flavor, nature and application. One of the greatest contributions to the development of pharmacology in the world, Materia Medica has been translated into several different languages and remains the premier reference guide for herbal medicine.
The Revolution of 1911 was the beginning of the People’s Republic of China. During this time, the government proposed the abolishment of traditional Chinese medicine and took measures to stop its development and use. In 1928, the Communist party of China was formed under the leadership of Chairman Mao. As there was very little or no medical services available at the time, the government encouraged the use of traditional Chinese remedies because they were affordable and accepted by the Chinese people.
Traditional Chinese medicine regained popularity in the early 1950s as the use of acupuncture and herbal medicine became standard medicine in China. Many hospitals opened clinics to provide, teach and investigate the traditional methods, with research performed at institutions in Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing.
From 1966 to 1976, Chinese medicine underwent a period of extreme hardship. During the Cultural Revolution, traditional doctors were purged from schools, hospitals and clinics, and many of the old practitioners were jailed or killed.
The National Association for Chinese Medicine was established in 1979, and several of the traditional texts were recovered, edited and republished.
Today, traditional Chinese medicine is the primary healthcare system for over 20% of the world’s population and is the fastest growing form of healthcare in the United States. The fact that TCM has existed for thousands of years, and is still used today, is a testament to its value as a highly effective form of healthcare.