Chinese Herbal Medicine is the oldest practiced medicine which goes back more than 5,000 years. The discovery of herbal medicine is ascribed to the legendary emperor Shen Nong (3494 BC). He introduced agriculture to his people and became enchanted by the medicinal properties of various plants. The discoveries of the Shen Nong era were passed from generation to generation by word of mouth, since there were no written records at this time. Myths and facts are therefore hard to distinguish.
It took approximately 2,000 years until the discoveries of Shen Nong and his followers were committed to writing. Many remedies and concepts could stand the test of time and their effectiveness has been proven by modern science as well.
Medicine as an element of philosophy
About 500 BC the science of herbal medicine had become an integral part and key element of Chinese philosophy and spiritualism. It is therefore much more than just medicine: on the foundations of its discoveries and ideas of the well-being of the body and the soul that became the core of Chinese philosophy it can as well be seen as an attempt to define the meaning of life.
Shen Nong “wrested from Nature a knowledge of her opposing principles”. They have been established as the opposing and yet complementary and reciprocal “yin” and “yang” forces of nature and of all matter.
Chinese observed the natural world and life determined by mutually dependent and constantly interacting forces of energy. Confucius (551-479 BC) established a code of ethics on the postulate that there is a right order and harmony to the universe, based upon the balance of yin and yang – the fundamental doctrine of two opposing but equal natural life forces. It also underlies all Chinese philosophy, art and science.
Lao Zi, the founder of Taoism (Tao = way, reason), embraced the Confucian postulate of universal order and taught that man himself can only reach personal harmony by bowing to its natural and predestined fact and following a course of passiveness, declaring interfering senseless. According to his teaching the successful conclusion will be reached without effort.
The neo-Confucian thinker Dong Zhongshu (100 BC) developed this philosophy further by including the inner reaches of man himself, establishing man as the universe on a smaller scale. The same locked cycle of yin and yang at work in the universe is at work in man himself. In Chinese medicine, illness and treatment are viewed as the universal striving for harmony.
The evolution of Chinese Medicine
Chinese medicine became a profession more than 2,000 years ago at the time of the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220). It is also in this period of time that the first steps were taken to record the remedies of herbal medicine. Long before these records, however, (around 3,500 BC) herbal medicine was already playing an important role in the cycle of Chinese tribal life. At this time it was the domain of tribal shamans and mountain recluses. The mountain recluses turned their backs on community life in order to retreat deep into the hills to practice the “Way of Long Life”. It included practicing and developing herbal diet and medicine, therapeutic breathing techniques and kung-fu exercises. In this way they contributed to Chinese medicine not only by gathering wild plants and herbs, but also by setting up a link between medicine and martial arts which is still intact today.
In the Yin dynasty (around 1,500 BC) the knowledge gathered by these mountain recluses had made its way back into the market place, leaving the isolation of the mountains. It was the time of the legendary emperor Shen Nong and his own herbal experiments, followed by the Zhou dynasty (1,122 BC) which is referred to as the Spring and Autumn and Warring States period – a period of great turmoil and instability. Many learned men left society and its dangers for the safety and isolation of the mountains. There they were searching for much more than just a secure and healthy everyday life: it was rather a quest for immortality which became the the prime driving force behind the development of herbal medicine. The Chinese aristocracy became obsessed by this search as well, making emperors and feudal barons sponsor herbal research projects.
After the Qin dynasty that lasted only 15 years but set up a stable, centralized bureaucracy, forming the foundations of the future Chinese empire, the Han dynasty lasted almost four and a half centuries. In this period of time arts, sciences, and philosophy flourished. It was the era of Confucius and the era that laid the foundations for Taoism. The Taoist considered frequent sexual intercourse as one of the paths to strength and longevity, forming a close association of medicine and sex. According to the opposing principles of yin and yang, men were yang and women yin. In the sexual union it is considered crucial that the male must retain his vital and limited yang while absorbing as much as he could of the females unlimited supplies of yin essence. It is written that “if one regards sperm as precious and does not ejaculate, then life will never be exhausting.” Longevity could be attained by absorbing the female “semen” when she reached orgasm, and at the same time retaining and recycling the male sperm. There are many references to men who had mastered this technique and lived up to 150 years or more.
By way of trade with India and the Persian Gulf other herbs and medicines entered the Chinese pharmacopoeia. It was during the Han reign, as well, that the theories of the Yellow Emperor were written down in Huang Di Nei Jing, The Internal Book of Huang Di and that the physician Hua Tuo (141-208 AD) performed the first treatment in history using anesthetics. He as well developed a series of therapeutic kung-fu exercises based on the movements of five animals and prescribed them to patients.
After the Han dynasty most of the elements of Chinese medicine were in place and with processes of consolidation during the Tang, Song and Ming dynasties still govern the science of today. The founding emperor of the Tang dynasty established China’s first school of medicine 629 AD and concentrated all medical knowledge throughout the empire in the capital. This was the first time that science could start to sift out quacks who had been dishonoring the profession by defrauding the sick with fake medical advice and prescriptions.
Dr. Sun Simiao specialized in the field of nutrition and diet as a medical therapy – proved accurate by Western research some 1,000-1,300 years after his time.
In 1790 Chinese medical herbs made their way into European pharmacology through a Dutch botanist who went to Japan to study oriental plants. He took many of the plants originated from China back to grow and experiment with in Holland.
With Western military and missionary in China Chinese herbal medicine came under pressure from Western medicine. Western and Chinese herbal medicine coexisted alongside each other for some time until a final confrontation in 1929: Chinese doctors who had studied Western medicine returned home demanding the ban of traditional herbal medicine. However, their demand didn’t win the governments support because of vehement opposition throughout all classes of Chinese society.
Chinese medicine was given an academic boost in the West in 1931: the wealthy American businessman G. M. Gest was cured from an eye disease by a Chinese physician after all other efforts had failed. He was so grateful that he collected 75,000 books about Chinese medicine and established the Gest Oriental Library at Princeton University. Much of the science of Chinese herbal medicine has been confirmed by Western research since then.