Submitted by Robert Felt on January 10, 2007 - 4:31pm.

Questions and Answers About Chinese History

I've often read that Chinese Medicine is 5,000 years old, why are the dates in these articles so different?

Until the liberation of 1949, the Chinese people where taught that their civilization was continuous since the third millenium BCE. These are the dates you have seen, typically dating the "Yellow Emperor" to 2800 BCE. However, most of Chinese history has been steadily re-written to accommodate the politics of each succeeding era, and until the 1950's the resources needed to date Chinese archaeologic evidence were not available. The dates given in these articles are those generally accepted today by both Western and Chinese historians. Although recently discovered archaeological evidence suggests the civilization of parts of China dating back as many as 10,000 years, what is generally recognized as Chinese civilization and culture seems to have emerged during the first millennium BCE.

Also keep in mind that there is a distinction between cultural continuity and technical equivalence. The fact that the concept of qi, for example, was acquiring a use in the first millennium BCE does not mean that its meaning, or its technical applications were exactly what they are today.

Who was the Yellow Emperor who founded acupuncture?

A legend. One of three fabled god-like rulers of China in prehistoric times. Fu Xi, one of the other two god-kings, devised the basic institutions and conventions of Chinese culture such as marriage, living in houses (as opposed to trees and caves) and the mysterious I Jing (Book of Changes), China's oldest extant "book." The third of this legendary triumvirate was Shen Nong, the God of Agriculture, to whom the Chinese ascribe the existence of animal husbandry and, of great significance to the art of medicine, knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants, which it is said he gained by tasting every one. Huang-Di, the Yellow Emperor, whose name is attached to the first true medical text of Chinese medicine is the legendary first ruler of China. It is his twenty-five sons who were said to be the first feudal lords. The Huang-Di Nei-jing (Yellow Emperors's Canon of Internal Medicine) is -- like many texts to follow -- posed as a dialog between Huang-Di and his minister Qi-Po. However, this is a literary convention based on these stories of the founders of Chinese civilization and neither Huang-Di nor Qi-Po needs to be thought of as a unique historical individual.

Where are these classic texts like the Nei-jing today?

Printing did not become available until the Song Dynasty. Before then, texts were handwritten on silk, strips of bamboo, or pottery, bronzes, animal skins and parchments. These were very rare, even in their generative periods. Like the illuminated manuscripts of Western history, they were the property only of an elite. Thus, close to nothing survives today and we know the content of these texts through the painstaking but imperfect method of collating the fragments that have survived with later editions, and comparing those with their descriptions in bibliographies and mentions in other literature of the period.

How old is acupuncture?

This is very difficult to answer with certainty. There are legends of stone and bone needles and some scholars point to passages from the first century as first indications that acupuncture was practiced. However, what is really more important is that we know acupuncture has developed in response to the needs of the Chinese people for at least 1800 years. This should not be taken as a claim that it has been widely available throughout that long history. Given the peasantry's social place, it is more likely that acupuncture began as the elite medicine of a feudal aristocracy. Up to the modern period the common peoples' access to acupuncture was probably through itinerant doctors and marketplace physicians of variable training and quality.

Is it true that acupuncture is the most ancient modality of Chinese medicine?

The Chinese see the continuum of life and death differently than we do in the West. Their view most highly values that which has age, longevity. As expressions of this attitude have been introduced in the West, this quality of Chinese thought has often been interpreted as if there were a one-and-only classical acupuncture tradition that was perfect, and all else were a corruption of it. In China today, doctors, martial artists and other masters of traditional disciplines still claim to partake of a pure tradition. In the Chinese context, these are more easily understood to be expressions of loyalties and rivalries. In the West where we have access to only a small fraction of Chinese medical writings, our narrower view tends to over-emphasize these claims.

It is important to keep in mind that all of Chinese medicine has developed like all human creations -- in response to the thoughts, needs and expectations of the time. Thus, there are many traditions in acupuncture, and probably thousands of techniques or variations that have been lost when the master-apprentice lines by which they were transmitted ended in the wars, famines and social upheavals of Chinese history. Most importantly, there is no need to say that one of these traditions is true and all others are false. Not only is China's intellectual history a story of conceptual bridges built between competing ideas but when understood in the context of masters' rivalry for apprentices and patients, these claims can be seen more as the "brand naming" of advertising, than the dogmatic differences of religion.

I've heard that ancient Chinese sages lived to incredible ages. Is this true?

These are often stories about legendary figures that symbolize Chinese pride in the accomplishments of prehistory. Evidence from excavated tombs suggests the Chinese lived no longer or shorter lives than typical of the era. Such legends embody the aspiration for longevity, which has been an important aspect of Chinese medical theory virtually throughout its long history. As is often the case in Chinese literary (i.e. story-telling) traditions, the meaning is understood within its context in a way that interconnects the ideal and the practical. Thus we can understand such stories as the mythic narratives that attend the very real process of searching for life-extending formulae, regimens of self-cultivation and ideas.

I've read that Chinese medicine is the way it is because the Chinese never performed anatomical dissections. Is this true?

No. There are records of anatomical studies, including the vivisection of a famous rebel, Ou Xi-fan in 1045. The Chinese words used for the human organs are exactly those used by Chinese butchers and dissections were the basis of published anatomical charts in use until Western anatomy arrived in the 18th and 19th centuries. Chinese medicine is the way it is because it is a product of Chinese culture, it is an outcome of a way of seeing the universe, not the product of some peculiarity or deficiency of Chinese science.

To Learn More

This article is based on Birch & Felt, Understanding Acupuncture , Chapter One.

Paul Unschuld's Chinese Medicine series is an excellent source of information about Chinese medicine;s history. His text Medicine in China, A History of Ideas , is the foundation work for modern Chinese intellectual history and his translation Forgotten Traditions of Ancient Chinese Medicine offers readers a rare opportunity to learn from a famous physician-scholar of the 18th century. Dr. Unsculd's Huang Di Nei Jing Sun Wen and Medicine in China: Nan Jing, Classic of Difficult Issues are superior studies of the classical foundations of Chinese medicine.

Who Can Ride the Dragon? by Zhang Yu Huan and Ken Rose includes one chapter (Five) devoted to the history of the scientific traditions of dynastic China. There you can find an overview of Chinese medical history as well as brief mention of some of the major scientific and technological accomplishments of the ancient Chinese. A Brief History of Qi by the same authors explores the depths of this critical Chinese idea through the classical Chinese arts and sciences.

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