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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 asked for the help of magical spirits. the people called them “shaman”, “medicine man” or “folk doctor”. But about 1,100 years ago, Chinese doctors started going to medical school.

As civilization advanced, magic played less of a role in healing.

Over time, therapists 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 techniques and meditation). Tai Chi Chuan or other martial arts, Feng Shui (the practice of placing 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 another.

Philosophies such as Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism also influenced Chinese medicine. The concept of yin and yang was part of the philosophy of Taoism and Confucianism. Ancient Chinese healers believed that nature consisted of two opposing forces, yin and yang, which must be in harmonious balance for good health.

Yin and Yang are cosmic energies or chi (chi). They are found 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. All contained yin and yang to varying degrees, but were part of an overall unifying force, the Tao. (Beshore, 1998, p. 11)

Visually, yin and yang are represented by a circle. Within this circle are two curved figures, one black and one white, both shaped like tadpoles. Yin and Yang never exist in isolation, yet one can transcend the other. It is this imbalance that causes ill health.

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 included those previously mentioned.

The Five Elements, or Five Zhangs, was another belief system that stated that everything is made of earth, wood, water, fire, and metal which are related to each other and to human structure and function. Human organs each have a corresponding element: fire, metal, water, wood and earth. Illness indicates disharmony between the elements. Thus, a healer used the philosophy of the Five Elements, treating a patient based on the element or elements in conflict. (Ross, 1982, pp. 29 – 31)

Complex philosophies such as the doctrine of yin and yang and the five elements became the basis for the diagnosis and treatment of disease. According to historians, these practices date back to the 6th century BC.

The universe had to be taken into account when diagnosing a patient. The stars, the season of the year, and even the time of day the disease began, had to be determined before treatment began. He needed medicine.

Early alchemists, or chemists, mixed various materials together to form potions that could cure people of various ailments. (Beshore, 1998, pp. 15-17)

They used the five element theory to make and prescribe the medicines. (Ross, 1982, p. 50)

Herbs and other plants became medicines. Sometimes, animal and mineral elements were also used. A book on medicines written in the sixteenth century lists more than two thousand substances used to make over sixteen thousand medicines. Ancient Chinese doctors could not always explain why so many of their medicinal potions worked, but they keenly observed the positive reactions of their patients when the herbal medicines were successful.

All parts of an herb were used, including the stem, seeds, leaves, fruits, and roots. Different processes were used including drying, baking and soaking in water. 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 properties for prolonging life.

They also used the plant ephedra which was valued for reducing excessive bleeding and relieving coughing caused by asthma. Medicines of animal origin were also popular. The secretion of toads was used for stimulating purposes. Minerals such as mercury and sulfur were often used in medicines that proved effective in treating many ailments. For example, arsenic was used in an ointment to treat skin rashes and wounds. Zinc sulfate was prescribed for bladder disorders.

Acupuncture is believed to have existed in Stone Age China when the flint needles used in acupuncture were discovered. Shamans may have used acupuncture to expel demons from a sick person’s body. During the Iron and Bronze Ages, flint needles were replaced by metal ones.

Acupuncture is a form of treatment in which one or more needles are inserted into the patient’s skin. The needles penetrate the skin at various depths and at various meridians or points on the body. Acupuncture restored yin and yang to a balanced state within the patient’s body. The needles released excess yin or yang depending on which force was out of balance. Most ailments required more than one acupuncture treatment.

Acupuncture has endured as a healing art in China for over 3,000 years. Moxa or moxabustion requires the use of fire instead of needles. The healer or doctor would pound the dried leaves of the berry plant and roll them into a cone shape.

Several cones would be placed at specific points on the patient’s body and then ignited. The burning cones would be removed just before the fire actually touched the skin. Moxa caused intense stimulation of the blood and nerves in the treated areas, leaving a red spot where the burning cone was. Mugwort leaves were eventually replaced by mulberry leaves, ginger and monkshood.

Ancient Chinese healers were also interested in preventive medicine. Diet was considered important as was exercise and peace of mind. They also developed ways to stop the spread of the disease. They destroyed germs by burning a chemical that disinfected a dead person’s home and steamed the sick’s clothes to keep others from getting sick. They also developed a primitive form of smallpox vaccination. It was not until the eighteenth 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: checking the patient’s pulse; examination of the patient’s language, voice and body. observation of the patient’s face and ear. observing the patient’s body for tenderness. examination of the vein in 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.

Besor, 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.

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