Chinese medicine: 1. The magic of Chinese medicine

Posted: 2014 年 03 月 26 日 in Chinese medicine
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The Magic of Chinese Medicine

        Ancient China’s misty past has produced a wealth of stories with bearing on modern concerns. Take, for instance, the case of the curious goatherd who one day noticed that several of his billy goats were behaving in an unusually randy manner, mounting their mates repeatedly in remarkably brief spans of time. Aroused by their amorous behavior, perhaps even a bit envious of their prowess, the goatherd, in time-honored scientific tradition, kept careful watch on his horny herd for a few weeks. He soon detected a pattern. Whenever a billy goat ate from a particular patch of weeds, its promiscuous proclivities peaked. Before long Chinese herbalists had determined what goats had long known: that a plant of the aceranthus sagittatum family was one of the most potent male aphrodisiacs in their catalogue of confections. So they called the herb yin-yang-huo— “horny goat weed.”

The World’s Oldest M.D.s

        Like the martial arts, China’s medical arts have come a long way from prehistoric fable to the 20th-century fact. The goat story is trite but true. Many of China’s most efficacious herbal remedies were gradually discovered in precisely that manner. If a dog nibbled on certain weeds that induced vomiting, the curious Chinese experimented with the emetic properties of those weeds. Thousands of years of such observation and experimentation have provided Chinese medicine with the world’s most comprehensive pharmacopoeia of herbal remedies. From the open-faced fronts of garishly lit emporiums in Taipei to dim, closet-sized shops in the back alleys of small Taiwan towns, herbal doctors and dealers do a brisk business providing ancient remedies to contemporary customers.

        Historians have traced the beginnings of herbal medicine to Shen Nung (神農), the legendary emperor known as the “Divine Farmer” because he taught his vassals agricultural techniques around 3,500 B.C. “Shen Nung tasted the myriad herbs, and so the art of medicine was born,” proclaimed that great Han historian Ssu Ma-chien (司馬遷).

        References to various diseases and their herbal remedies first appeared on Shang Dynasty oracle bones (商朝甲骨文), circa 1,500 B.C., that were unearthed this century in China. Their discovery proved that medicine was a formal branch of study in China as long as 3,500 years ago. Books on medicine were among the few tomes spared from destruction during the infamous “Fires of Chin” (秦始皇焚書) of 220 B.C.

        The first volume that summarized and categorized the cumulative knowledge of disease and herbal cures in China appeared during the early part of the Han Dynasty in the 2nd century B.C. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (黃帝內經) contained the world’s first scientific classification of medicinal plants and is still in use by Chinese physicians and scholars today.

        The quintessential herbal doctor Sun Ssu-mo (孫思邈)appeared on the scene 800 years later during the Tang Dynasty. He established a pattern of practice still followed by Chinese physicians today. “When people come in for treatment, one does not inquire about their station in life or their wealth. Rich and poor, old and young, high and low are all alike in the clinic,” Sun wrote.

        Three emperors, all of whom he outlived, invited Sun to be their personal physician. He declined, preferring to pursue his clinical practice among the common people. Previously only the high and mighty had access to professional medical care, but Dr. Sun applied the Confucian virtue of ren (仁), “benevolence,” to his trade. He established the great tradition of ren-hsin, ren-shu (仁心仁術)–benevolent heart, benevolent art—that has guided Chinese physicians ever since.

        Sun Ssu-mo was also medical history’s first dietary therapist. In his famous study Precious Recipes (千金方), he wrote: A truly good physician first finds out the cause of the illness, and having found that, he first tries to cure it by food. Only when food fails does he prescribe medication.

        In fact, Dr. Sun diagnosed the vitamin-deficiency disease beriberi 1,000 years before it was identified by European doctors in 1642. Sun prescribed a strict dietary remedy that sounds remarkably modern: calf and lamb liver which are rich in vitamins A and B, wheat germ, almonds, wild pepper and other vitamin-packed edibles.

        Another milestone in the history of Chinese herbal medicine was the publication of Ben Tsao Gang Mu (本草綱目) in the 16th century. Known to the West as Treasures of Chinese Medicine, this authoritative pharmacopeia was compiled over a 27-year period of intensive research and study by the physician Li Shin-chen (李時珍). He scientifically classified and analyzed 1,892 entries including drugs derived from plants, animals and minerals. The book became popular in Western medical circles during the 18th and 19th centuries and was used by Charles Darwin in the development of his famous system for classifying nature’s species. The Ben Tsao Gang Mu remains the single most important reference tool for Chinese herbalists today.


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