A Brief Introduction about Chinese Medicine

The Traditional Chinese Medical Science, also called Chinese Medicine, is the traditional medical science of the Han Chinese people (the main people of China). So, in Korea and Japan, Chinese Medicine is known as “Han Medicine”.

Chinese Medicine has a history of several thousand years. Legend says that the origin of Chinese Medicine was related to Yan-Di (炎帝) and Huang-Di (黄帝), two great tribal leaders of the Chinese nation. In Chinese myths, Yan-Di, also called Shennong (神农), tasted a large number of plants by himself in order to distinguish herbs from various plants; meanwhile, Huang-Di and his ministers first discussed Chinese physiological, pathological and therapeutic theories. Of course the myths are not reliable. In fact, Chinese Medicine originated from generations’ experience of fighting against diseases. In the Western Han Dynasty (from 206 B.C. to A.D. 8), many doctors put together their predecessors’ experience to create organized theories. Many books of medical theories appeared at that time. But in the later days, almost all of those books were lost in wars.

Two works, “Su Wen” (素问) and “Ling Shu” (灵枢), were said to be the two parts of “the Orthodox Classic of Huang-Di” (黄帝内经), a book written in the Western Han Dynasty. The two works systematically elaborate the basic philosophy and clinical theories of Chinese Medicine. About therapeutics, they summarize the principles of treatment, and attaches importance to acupuncture. After the Western Han Dynasty, since other works on medical theories had been lost and the two books were deemed to be the only surviving ones, they were held in very high esteem by later doctors. The two books, or customarily called “the Orthodox Classic of Huang-Di”, determined the developing way of Chinese Medicine. The later development of Chinese Medicine had never been beyond the rules of the two works.

In the Eastern Han Dynasty (from A.D. 25 to 220), a famous pharmacological book named “the Herbal Classic of Shennong” (神农本草经) appeared. It collects 365 medicinal materials and elaborates their effects. Moreover, the book summarizes the principles for the combined usage of different medicinal materials. With the development of medical science, more and more medicinal materials were found and used clinically. The top achievement of traditional Chinese pharmacology is the great work “the Compendium of Materia Medica” (本草纲目) written by Li Shizhen (李时珍) in the Ming Dynasty (from 1368 to 1662). The illustrious book collects 1892 medicinal materials and their references. But in fact, only hundreds of medicinal materials are often used clinically.

Since “the Orthodox Classic of Huang-Di” and “the Herbal Classic of Shennong” weren’t written by Huang-Di and Shennong, why do the two works have such names? It was because many authors in the Han Dynasty often owed their achievements to ancient famous men for raising the value of their works and attracting readers. They were more willing to see that their works become well-known instead of their names. For example, another famous medical work, “Eighty-One Problems” (八十一难) or called “the Classic of Problems” (难经), was said to be written by Qin Yueren (秦越人), a famous doctor in the Warring-States Period (from the fifth century B.C. to 221 B.C.), who was also called “Bianque” (扁鹊, a mythological bird which could cure diseases). But in fact the problems in this book were designed for explaining many contents of “Su Wen” and “Ling Shu”, so the book was written obviously later than “Su Wen” and “Ling Shu”, and the author was not Qin Yueren.

In the beginning of the third century A.D., a doctor named Zhang Zhongjing (张仲景) wrote a great clinical work, “the Treatise on Cold-Induced Diseases and Other Diseases” (伤寒杂病论). Zhang Zhongjing had rich experience in the treatment of diseases. His book records the symptoms of many diseases, and discusses their pathological mechanism and how to treat the diseases. The extant parts of the book collect 269 medical prescriptions which are very effective clinically. The book incarnates complete principles of diagnosis, analysis and treatment on diseases, so it greatly promoted the development of the clinical medicine of ancient China. Accordingly, Zhang Zhongjing was acclaimed as “the Medical Sage” (医圣) by later people. But in the later years of social unrest, his book was broken asunder. Later doctors collected the remaining texts of the book and reorganized them into two books. The two books are known as “the Treatise on Cold-Induced Diseases” (伤寒论) and “the Prescriptions Kept in A Golden Box” (金匮要略). The former is the part about cold-induced diseases, while the latter is the part about other diseases. The prescriptions in the two books are reputed as “Classic Prescriptions” (经方). The Han Medicine in modern Japan is mainly based on these prescriptions. Japanese doctors think that the prescribed dosage of every medicinal material in the two books can’t be changed, and they have gained many achievements for the modern research and commercialization of the “Classic Prescriptions”.

The books “Su Wen”, “Ling Shu”, “Eighty-One Problems”, “the Herbal Classic of Shennong”, “the Treatise on Cold-Induced Diseases” and “the Prescriptions Kept in A Golden Box” are the most important classical works of Chinese Medicine. These works form a unique medical system combined with perfect basic theories and clinical principles. Though they were written between the second century B.C. and the third century A.D., they still enlighten and direct the clinical practice of Chinese Medicine in modern times. Age-old medical theories and principles are still effective to treat modern diseases. It is really a great miracle.

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