In the very earliest times, man relied on collected seeds and plants as a source of medicine, and some of the earliest records of herbal remedies date back to 5000 B.C. in China (with many still being utilized to this day). By 3000 B.C., China enjoyed a highly developed system of medicine that was based upon a deep knowledge of medical science, theory, diagnostic methods (including Observation, Olfaction-Auscultation, Interrogation and Pulse-Palpitation), prescriptions and cures. Traditional Chinese Medicine (called TCM) is rich in tradition and history, and its development may be traced through the millennia to the present day, where it is the most widely used system of herbal medicine in the world.
Unlike Western medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine takes an entirely different approach, and it is based upon the relative properties of Yin and Yang, which were associated with the Emperor Fu Hsi (circa 2852 B.C.). This theory claims that everything in the cosmos is balanced by its own polar opposite. Yin is regarded as dark and cold (the female) and is said to store and provide energy for its counterpart, Yang, which is light and hot (the male) and is said to protect from outer harm. Ideally, perfect harmony and good health are achieved when the Yin (negative principle) and Yang (positive principle) are in perfect balance, and many ills are believed to be caused when there is a prolonged deficiency or excess of either. Chinese Herbal Medical practitioners to this day will try to restore that natural balance, which is said to enable the body's own healing mechanisms to go into action. Traditional treatments not only include the all-important natural herbal preparations, but also encompass acupuncture, massage, diet and gentle exercise to correct the imbalances within the body.
Emperor Shen Nong (circa 2697 B.C.), the "divine farmer" and father of agriculture and herbal medicine, is said to have created the earliest known Chinese pharmacopoeia, the Pen Tsao (Canon of Herbs). Among the many medicinal plants that he identified and recommended included the opium poppy, rhubarb, aconite and ma huang (for improved circulation, urinary function and asthma, the very same way it is used today!). He is said to have tasted and tested hundreds of herbs himself and is credited with the discovery of tea drinking.
Emperor Huang Ti (dates vary from 800 B.C. to 200 B.C.) is believed to be the author of the Nei Ching (Yellow Emperor's Canon of Internal Medicine), which is said to be the oldest medical textbook in the world and still used to this day as a medical text.
About the first century A.D., unknown authors produced the Chinese Materia Medica, a description of individual herbs (including 252 botanical substances), their medicinal effects on symptoms, proper methods of preparation and toxicities.
Since that time, there have been many revisions of Chinese materia medica that have included accumulated knowledge of substances from China's folk medicine and those from other areas, such as Southeast Asia, India, etc. The latest compilation of Chinese materia medica was published in 1977 as the Encyclopedia of Traditional Chinese Medicine Substances (Zhong yao da ci dian). The compendium includes 5,767 entries and is said to be the definitive compilation of China's herbal tradition.
Taoist philosophers and sages exerted great influence over Chinese medicine through the seventh century A.D., often combining spiritual wisdom with the text of the Nei Ching and believed that disease could be prevented by practicing moderation. These Taoist doctors, who produced classic medical texts, appeared to have been the first choice in medical treatments for the aristocracy. About 500 A.D., the Taoist, Taohong Jing, produced an extensive compendium of herbal medicines that included 364 entries.
In 1596, during the Ming Dynasty, a grand materia medica, entitled Ben Cao Gang Mu, which was compiled by Li Shizhen (1518-1593) and published three years after his death. It was considered the zenith of Chinese herbalism and included 1892 entries.
During succeeding centuries of Imperial Era, Chinese herbal medicine continued to develop, but by the nineteenth century, Western influence had taken root in China, and mission hospitals introduced a new alternative to the old practices. Although TCM survived, despite the temporary setbacks incurred following the collapse of the Manchu Dynasty in 1911, it was not until the 1960s, when Mao Tse Tung founded five traditional medical colleges, that TCM entered popular modern thinking, and it remains on equal footing with biomedicine in China today. While both Western and Chinese medicine have been practiced in China since the late 1800s, the traditional Chinese approach to medicine only began to grow in popularity in the West since the 1970s, when ties to China reopened.
Traditional Chinese Medical doctors say that Qi, (sometimes spelled Chi and pronounced "chee") or vital energy (body fluids, bloods, moving particles, etc.) is a flowing network of the essential substances that compose the human body. Qi/Chi flows through a somewhat complicated system of five paired organs that control and supply one another in ways that reflect the movement of energy on both cosmic and microscopic levels. In the cosmos as a whole, the "Five Elements" create and restrain one another, and in the human body, each element is processed by one of the five organ systems, and the energy associated with that organ system's activity circulates up and down the body through precisely defined (but difficult to locate) energy channels or meridians. There are twelve basic bilateral channels of Qi through which this energy flows, and they are connected with organs of the body (i.e., gallbladder, liver, etc.). When the flow of Qi is out of balance, illness may result.
The theory of the Five Elements (sometimes called the five-phase theory) is also a mainstay of Traditional Chinese Medicine; the elements are wood, fire, earth, metal and water. The theory asserts that everything in the universe (including the health of our bodies) is governed by these elements and focuses on the theory that the physical and mental natures of humans are completely interwoven with nature. Each of the elements is associated with a number considerations, such as a season, taste, color and sound. For example, wood is associated with springtime, the liver and gallbladder; fire corresponds to the early summer, the heart and small intestines; earth is related to late summer, the stomach and spleen; metal relates to autumn, the lungs and large intestine; and water is associated with winter, the kidneys and bladder. This philosophy represents a great contrast to Western medicine's idea of a separation between the mind and body. TCM views each organ as having particular body and mind functions, as illustrated in the belief that the liver is involved in planning and in the storage of anger, while the gallbladder is the organ of decision-making.
The ancient diagnostic methods (sometimes called the "Four Examinations") come into play when determining a patient's composition of the Five Elements, and although a person may be oriented towards a particular element, the Chinese believe that aspects of each of the Five Elements are present in every person at different times. The practitioner asks many detailed questions (Interrogation) about the person's lifestyle (diet, occupation, symptoms, previous treatments) to settle on the elemental composition of the individual and may then prescribe the course of treatment.
Observation means that the doctors directly scrutinize the outward appearance of the patient to understand the condition. Since TCM maintains that the exterior and interior immediately correspond, when the inner organs are badly affected, it will be reflected through skin pallor, tongue, the facial sensory organs and the examination of some excrement.
Olfaction and Auscultation is a way for doctors to collect messages through smelling an odor and/or hearing the sound(s) of a patient.
In the case of Palpitation, the doctor notes the pulse condition of the patient's radial artery and then discerns the inner change of symptoms. Doctors believe that when the organic function is normal, the frequency and intensity of the pulse will be relatively stable; when it is not, the pulse will fluctuate.
The system of Traditional Chinese Medicine has been refined over the centuries, and the notion of "person-centered " medicine has developed with the principle of the Four Examinations and the Eight Indicators (cold and heat, deficiency and excess, interior and exterior, yin and yang) as the basis of treatment that is now highly regarded in the world of herbal medicine, but perhaps more importantly, its use has become increasingly regarded as a feasible consideration and useful complement to today's conventional Western medicine.
Related News Article from our News & Research section:
Chinese remedy gets thumbs up - BBC News Health Section - 11/12/98
A Chinese remedy for breech births, which involves burning an herb at the toe of a pregnant woman, actually works - clinical tests have shown. A study by Italian obstetrician and acupuncturist, Dr. Francesco Cardini, found that the remedy, known as moxibustion, was successful in preventing breech births.