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Medicine is one of the oldest areas of learning. To enhance survival, health, and wellness, human beings started their medical activity from the ancient days when they came into being. Being one of the places that ancient civilization was born, China is one of the nations that developed medicine, which has made major contributions towards the development of modern medicine. Traditional Chinese Medicine is ranked as the third oldest practice of medicine, with only Egypt and Babylon predating it. The Chinese medicine past chronological accounts and record of events starts from around the second century BC. Indeed, this is due to the reason that there are no clear accounts of therapeutic techniques that were used earlier than that. Although there are inscribed reports regarding illnesses from the Shang Dynasty Epoch, which was a period between 1600 and 1046 BC, there are no written accounts of the manner in which medical techniques were applied.[1] The fact that Chinese traditional medicine has been practiced for more than 3000 years ago and that people of the contemporary world still use it, is a living testimony of its rich value as an approach towards health and cure.

The traditional Chinese medicine has gone through a protracted progressive development that involves a wide range of medical theories, everyday application experiences, and unique medical techniques. Despite its foundations being put into place a long time ago, it has been molded through the appliances of consolidated and accumulative data and information acquired from therapeutic practitioners of diverse medical fields who went through and applied the information gathered from the Chinese medical literature. In other words, the manner in which people practice traditional Chinese medicine has been largely developed from the observations and interpretation of authors on classical writings that are thought to be the foundations of traditional Chinese medicine. As such, having a clear understating of the history of traditional Chinese medicine and its stages of development can go a long way in enabling individuals of our modern times to understand its contributions and influences as well as limitations to the maintenance of health.

Historical Background

It is documented that the first inscribed therapeutic piece dates back to the era of the Han Dynasty, a period between 206 BC and AD 220. The Chinese ethnic medicine men as well as the holy men who lived a solitary life in the Chinese woodlands in 3500 BC engaged in therapeutic practices that were referred to as the “way of life.” [2] The “way of life” medicinal practice entailed dietary practice that was based on herbs as well as other plants, exercises known as Kung-Fu, and unique inhalation techniques. The people at that time engaged in these practices in order to enhance health, vitality, and increase life expectancy.

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The other great era of Chinese traditional medicine was during the Tang monarchs who administered from 608 AD to 906 AD. In essence, the first Tang emperor is known to have founded the first Chinese medical learning institution in 629 AD. Other medical schools would be established during the preceding dynasties. Their method of learning medicine entailed the passing of knowledge concerning herbal prescriptions that were written and joined to create traditional encyclopedias. The major difference between Chinese traditional medicines to those of the western countries is the interest in surgical techniques and procedures that the western culture delves in. When China opened up to the West in the late 19th century, and early 20th century, they were acculturated and influenced in various areas, including the medical practice, a factor that saw the establishment of a medical school that was more Westernized in Shanghai as well as other big cities.

The amalgamation of the two cultures increased competition between medical practitioners of the two schools of medicine, including the westernized therapeutic model and the Chinese traditional medicine, which saw a group of medics who practiced the Western medicine petition the Chinese administration to prohibit the practice of Chinese traditional medicine in the year 1929, though the move was opposed in 1933.[3] In modern China, the two therapeutic methods, including the Westernized practices and the Chinese traditional medicine are carried out alongside each other.

Philosophical Background

Traditional Chinese medicine is deeply rooted in the customary Eastern philosophy as opposed to the West. However, the philosophy is not just one and does not stem from a specific time and the period of the Chinese chronology. Indeed, this is due to the reason that the philosophical background of Chinese medicine was created, added to, and modified all through the history of China. The main thing that saw the successional infrastructure of the philosophical concepts and their general acceptance all through the land of China is the characteristic traits of the Chinese people who are very pragmatic. They do not have issues with accepting various philosophies into their distinct culture and find no conflict between the philosophies.

During the Shang dynasty epoch, the Chinese culture had developed literatures and also practiced religion. According to their religious belief, they had a deity known as Shang Ti who lived in the space and had and majestic court that included their ancestors. When people would fall ill, it was believed to be a curse from Shang Ti and could have resulted from upsetting the ancestral spirits. The shamans or witch doctors had the role of communicating with ancestors, who in turn could converse to Shang Ti to bring forth healing.[4] During this era, sickness was also thought to be a form of demon that entered the individual body. People suffering from demonic attacks or illnesses required special rituals from shamans to appease the spirits and Shang Ti.

Throughout this epoch, physicians were associated with shamanism and demonology.

The Chou dynasty era was characterized by the peak of Chinese civilization. In fact, this is a time in the history of Chinese culture when centralized authority declined and hence making people to worry among themselves, especially those from lower social status. Indeed, this was a time of social order degeneration and great instability. It was at this time that some of the great thinkers in the Chinese field of medicine were produced in their attempt to come up with a practicable solution to the existing predicament. It is worth noting that Taoism was one of the philosophical concepts that was developed during this era. According to Taoism school of thought, Tao is expressed through the duality of Yin-Yang and acts as an enduring prehistoric law of nature. Tao law indicated that the man was part of nature and hence should remain in peace and harmony with nature.[5]

Yin and Yang principles greatly influenced Chinese traditional medicine. Although Yin and Yang are jointly dependent, they are also polar adjacent. In Chinese traditional medicine, Yin characterizes anything that is moving downward or inward, cold, moist, passive, slow, heavy and dim. On the other hand, Yang symbolizes upward and downward motion, light, activity, heat, dryness and brightness as well as rapidity. The two forces are important in the coexistence of human beings as well as in nature since one force cannot exist without the other.[6] Human life is one way in which these forces are reflected, and thus, the goal of traditional Chinese medicine is to ensure that both Yin and Yang are at par within the human body.

Another philosophical belief of traditional Chinese medicine is the Qi, which represents energy. Qi is thought to flow through various meridians, also known as channels to other parts of the body. The flow of Qi follows the body’s arteries and veins that carry oxygenated and deoxygenated blood, and joins to the internally located organs. Indeed, this flow helps Qi to circulate throughout the body. The description of Qi can stem from its source, where it is located and the role it plays in the human body. Therefore, regulating and stimulating the flow of Qi in the body is important for one to understand the role of illnesses and diseases in the body. Important to note is that modern therapeutic scientists have not been able to validate various philosophical tenets of traditional Chinese medicine, although some claim that come procedures, such as acupuncture are effective in providing relief amid the pain.

Application of Yin, Yang, and Qi in the human body

Unlike the Western doctors, traditional Chinese physicians did not study the human body through dissections. In fact, this was due to the belief that cutting open a human body was a taboo and an insult to the ancestors of the sick person. Rather, they built up their understanding of the human body based on the locations and roles played by the various organs. In their observation that lasted for centuries, they found five vital elements of the human body that was linked to Yin, Yang, and Qi. According to the findings of the ancient Chinese doctors, the wood was associated with liver and represents the Yin, the gall bladder represents Yang along with the small intestines and large intestines. The spleen, the lungs, and the kidneys were associated with Yin. Traditional Chinese medicine men also believed that the human body contains five essential elements that include blood, fluids including saliva, sweat and spinal fluid, the spirit, and vital essence, which is an element produced by the combination of Qi and blood, and Qi.[7]  The meridian pathways were one of the most important findings of traditional Chinese medicine. According to their understanding of the human body and its functionalism, the human body is regulated by energy pathways known as meridians, whose role is to connect and keep the functions of various organs at equilibrium.


The traditional Chinese medicine has a long and protracted history that dates back to more than 3000 years. Indeed, the ancient people of this region were able to meet the need of social stability in that they were able to cure diverse illnesses, including those of physical, spiritual, and emotional origins. According to the philosophical tenets of traditional Chinese medicine, the healthy living of human beings results from a balance of Yin and Yang as well as an even flow of Qi.

[1] TJ Hinrichs and Barnes, Linda L. Chinese medicine and healing: an illustrated history. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University. Press. 45

[2]TJ Hinrichs and Barnes, Linda L. Chinese medicine and healing: an illustrated history. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University. Press. 31.

[3] Nong Sheng . TCM Chronology. PacificLink iMedia. 2005, 1.

[4] Andrews, Bridie The Making of Modern Chinese Medicine, 1850-1960, 78.


[5] Fang, Tu, Ya, Tingyu, and Ochs Shelley. History and philosophy of Chinese medicine. (2014), 252.


[6] Dachun, Xu and Unschuld. Paul U. Forgotten traditions of ancient Chinese medicine: a Chinese view from the eighteenth century: The I-hsüeh Yüan Liu Lun of 1757. (Brookline, MA: Paradigm): 1998, 58.

[7] Howard, Chiang.  Historical epistemology and the making of modern Chinese medicine. 2015. 113


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