Who did what in ancient China: healers and medicine
In ancient China, the sick went to see a healer. Healers were like doctors, although thousands of years ago, healers knew less about the science of medicine than we do today. They sought the help of magical spirits; people called them “shaman”, “healer” or “popular doctor”. But about 1,100 years ago, Chinese doctors started going to medical school.
As civilization progressed, magic played a minor role in healing.
Over time, the healers learned various techniques that they used to help their patients. They used techniques such as Tui Na ‘(massage therapy); acupuncture; moxabustion; herbs; nutrition; Qigong (breathing and meditation techniques); Tai Chi Chuan or other martial arts, Feng Shui (the practice of positioning objects based on yin and yang and the flow of chi or energy), and Chinese astrology. This knowledge was passed down from one generation to the next.
Philosophies such as Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism also influenced Chinese medicine. The concept of yin and yang was part of the philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism. Ancient Chinese healers believed that nature was made up of two opposing forces, yin and yang, which must be in harmonious balance for good health.
Yin and yang are cosmic energies or qi (chi). They reside in the universe and in the human body. Yin is negative energy: cold, dark and feminine. Yang is positive energy: light, warm and masculine. Although they are opposites, yin and yang are inseparable. Everything contains yin and yang to varying degrees, but they were part of an overall unifying force, Tao. (Beshore, 1998, p. 11)
Visually, yin and yang are represented by a circle. Inside this circle are two curved shapes, one black and one white, and both are shaped like a tadpole. Yin and yang never exist individually, but one can be above the other. It is this imbalance that causes health problems.
If yin and yang are in balance or harmony within a person, good health prevails. But if the balance is disturbed, the Chinese healer’s job is to restore harmony. Common treatments used include the treatments listed above.
The Five Elements or the Five Zangs, was another belief system that stated that everything is made of earth, wood, water, fire and metal that are interrelated with each other and with human structure and function. Each of the human organs has a corresponding element: fire, metal, water, wood and earth. Disease indicates disharmony between the elements. So a healer used the philosophy of the Five Elements when treating a patient based on the element or elements in discord. (Ross, 1982, pp. 29-31)
Complex philosophies such as the doctrine of yin and yang and the five elements became the basis for diagnosing and treating diseases. According to historians, these practices date back to the 6th century BC. C.
The cosmos had to be taken into account when diagnosing a patient. The stars, the season of the year and even the time of day of the onset of the disease had to be determined before treatment could begin. Medicine was needed.
Early alchemists, or chemists, mixed various materials to form potions that could cure humans of various diseases. (Beshore, 1998, p. 15-17)
They used the theory of the five elements to make and prescribe the drugs. (Ross, 1982, p. 50)
Herbs and other plants became medicines. Sometimes animal and mineral elements were also used. A book on drugs written in the 16th century lists more than 2,000 substances used to make more than 16,000 drugs. Ancient Chinese doctors could not always explain why so many of their drug potions worked, but they closely watched the positive reactions of their patients when herbal medicines were successful.
All parts of a herb were used, including the stem, seeds, leaves, fruits, and roots. Different processes of drying, roasting and soaking in water were used. Some herbs were used in their natural state. Ginseng was especially popular because the ancient Chinese believed that the root of the plant had magical qualities to prolong life.
They also used the ephedra plant, which was believed to reduce excessive bleeding and relieve coughs caused by asthma. Medicines of animal origin were also popular. Toad secretion was used for stimulation purposes. Minerals such as mercury and sulfur were often used in medications that have been shown to be effective in treating many ailments. For example, arsenic was used in an ointment to treat skin rashes and sores; Zinc sulfate was prescribed for bladder disorders.
Acupuncture is believed to have existed during the Stone Age of China, when the flint needles used in acupuncture were discovered. Shamans may have used acupuncture to drive demons out of a sick person’s body. During the Iron and Bronze Ages, flint spiers were replaced by metal.
Acupuncture is a form of therapy in which one or more needles are inserted into the skin of the patient. The needles penetrate the skin at different depths and at various meridians or points on the body. Acupuncture restored yin and yang to a state of balance within the patient’s body. The needles released an excess of yin or yang depending on what force was unbalanced. Most illnesses required more than one acupuncture treatment.
Acupuncture has endured as a healing art in China for more than 3,000 years. Moxa or moxabustion requires the use of fire instead of needles. The healer or physician crushed the dried sagebrush leaves and rolled them into a cone shape.
Various cones would be placed at specific points on the patient’s body and then turned on. The burning cones would retreat just before the fire actually touched the skin. Moxa caused intense stimulation of the blood and nerves in the treated areas, leaving a red stain where the burning cone had been. Mugwort leaves were eventually replaced by mulberry, ginger, and aconite leaves.
Ancient Chinese healers were also interested in preventive medicine. Nutrition was considered important as well as exercise and mental serenity. They also developed ways to stop the spread of disease. They destroyed the germs by burning a chemical that sanitized a deceased person’s home and smoked the clothes of sick people so that others would not get sick. They also developed a primitive form of vaccination against smallpox. It was not until the 18th century that Western medicine discovered the fundamental idea of immunization against disease. (Beshore, 1998, p. 31)
The ancient Chinese discovered certain diagnostic techniques that were not used in the West until centuries later. These techniques included: monitoring the patient’s pulse; examine the patient’s tongue, voice, and body; observation of the patient’s face and ear; observation of the patient’s body for sensitivity; examination of the vein of the index finger in children; and comparisons of the relative warmth or coolness of different parts of the body. Traditional Chinese Medicine was developed as a non-invasive therapeutic medicine rooted in ancient belief systems and traditions.
Beshore, George. Science in ancient China. New York: Franklin Watts, 1998
Ross, Frank, Jr. Oracle Bones, Stars and Wheelbarrows: Ancient Chinese Science and Technology. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.