Wang Mang (王莽), who was reigning from A.D. 9 to 23, was a special emperor. He idolized the ancient systems, but he was also active to make some scientific innovations and even in his times there was the first flying experiment in the human history. The first recorded experiment of anthropotomy was in his times.
In fact, in the Pre-Qin Period, Chinese doctors paid attention to human anatomy, so in many books, the descriptions about many internal organs and physiology are similar to the real conditions. However, no book records when and where doctors did those experiments of anthropotomy.
The first recorded experiment of anthropotomy is recorded in Han History (汉书) which was written by Ban Gu (班固). Han History is a book about the history of the Western Han Dynasty, and it also records the history of Xin (新) Dynasty which was built by Wang Mang. In A.D. 16 (天鳳三年), Wangsun Qing (王孙庆), the conspirator of Di Yi (翟义) who rebelled against Wang Mang in A.D. 7 (居摄二年), was arrested and killed. Wang Mang ordered imperial physicians, the ministers who kept instruments, and skillful butchers to anatomize the body of Wangsun Qing. They measured the internal organs, and introduced long thin bamboo strips into Mai (脉) for researching the starting points and end points of Mai. Wang Mang said these actions could be helpful for curing diseases.
“Mai” is a term of the Traditional Chinese Medical Science. Mai are the channels of essential substances such as Qi (气, a kind of extremely small matter. Ancient Chinese philosophers thought that this kind of matter was the most fundamental element which formed all things in the world) and blood, so Mai are similar to blood vessels but they have some functions of nerves because they can transfer neural stimulus. However, nowadays scientists actually still are not clear what the physical bases of Mai are on earth, and they are unable to decide which view is really right.
The Westerners thought the scientific researches of ancient Chinese were always superficial. For example, the theories of Yin-Yang (阴阳, the two opposite attributes of all things) and five elements (五行, the five kinds of basic substances or attributes: wood 木, fire 火, earth 土, metal 金 and water 水) were utilized to explain all things and the phenomena of nature again and again. If one thing couldn’t be explained clearly, it would be said that the reason was the movement of Yin-Yang or five elements. The superficial attitudes of scientific researches hampered seriously the development of ancient Chinese science and technology.
The anatomical experiment of A.D. 16 was significant. It showed the far past scientific spirit of ancient Chinese. In the times of Wang Mang, Chinese people were curious about the world and they were eager and brave to research and explore. They used the methods of experiments of natural science for scientific researches, and this kind of thinking way was similar to the scientific thoughts of the modern Western world. However, with the end of the empire of Wang Mang, this kind of thinking way was hardly inherited by later people. Only in the Song Dynasty, there were two famous actions of anatomizing bodies which were ordered by local governments. One action was in 1040s, 56 rebels were killed and their bodies were anatomized. The other action was in 1100s, four executed criminals were anatomized. The anatomical results of the two actions were represented graphically, but the anatomical atlases were scattered later and disappeared.
However, the researching methods of natural science were not often used in ancient China in recent two thousand years. This was why ancient Chinese science was unable to develop to be more advanced and in-depth. Maybe nowadays Chinese are always intoxicated with so-called “Four Inventions” (compass, paper making, explosive powder, and movable-type printing). However, why could the Westerners use these inventions to invent more advanced things and create the modern civilization? Why couldn’t Chinese do? The two problems need us to think carefully and deeply.