The Physician-Shaman: Early Origins of Traditional Chinese Medicine

By Mainfort, Donald | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

The Physician-Shaman: Early Origins of Traditional Chinese Medicine


Mainfort, Donald, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


THE EARLY HISTORY OF TRADITIONAL Chinese medicine (TCM) has been fraught with speculative and often conflicting claims. One common theme is that "thousands of years" of continuous oral and written tradition have yielded a venerable system of diagnosis and treatment that remains highly effective and is practiced today in respected medical institutions as a part of so-called "complementary" medicine.

But what, exactly, is this tradition? Though a few scattered clues have been gleaned from oracle bones, carved jade, and bronze inscriptions, the cornerstone for any study of Chinese medical history has been the Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi Neijing), from the 1st century BCE. It is the basis not only of historical TCM, but for all later developments in TCM as well.

Huangdi NeiJing

The literal translation of the title "Huangdi" ("Yellow Emperor") is misleading. An emperor did not write the Inner Canon. Inner Canon is a collection of conversations that, as legend has it, took place between one of China's ancient mystical patriarchs and his follower, the physician Qi Bo, some time before recorded history. According to legend, Huangdi lived in a magnificent palace in the Kunlun Mountains in the west with a heavenly doorkeeper who had the face of a man and the body of a tiger with nine tails. He is credited with founding the Chinese nation around 4,000 BCE--3,900 years before the Huangdi Neijing was formulated and composed. He supposedly lived to be 110 years of age, when a dragon descended from Heaven, "returning" him there "where he belonged." Recently, scholars have adopted improved translations, such as "Yellow Lord," "Yellow Sovereign," or "Yellow Thearch." The title and premise of the Inner Canon assert a direct connection to occult medical wisdom born at the dawn of Chinese civilization.

The Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor regards disease as an imbalance of "Qi," or "vital air," in the blood vessels and prescribes treatments for healing the "imbalances" by means of acupuncture, herbal prescriptions, and other methods. (1) That such an elaborate system of medicine suddenly emerged out of a historical void has long troubled Chinese medical scholars. As with other received sources, the Inner Canon of today "has been subject to centuries of editing and revision. What remains is a collection of short passages that lack cohesion. Some passages are duplicated or reworded versions of others; some are contradictory and at odds with other entries.

The Mawangdui Discovery

In 1973, 30 silk and bamboo manuscripts were discovered in a lacquer box, entombed at Mawangdui (near Changsha, Hunan province) along with their owner, a member of the locally prominent Li faintly, who was estimated to be 30 years of age at the time of his death in 168 BCE. The recorded date of death indicates that all the manuscripts entombed with him must date from 168 BCE or earlier.

Discovered along with manuscripts on history, geography, military science, philosophy, astronomy, and divination, was a collection of medical texts predating the Inner Canon by at least a century. These represent the oldest immediate sources of early Chinese medicine. A research team of paleographers in Beijing established a modern Chinese transcription of the approximately 22,000 characters of medical text that was published in 1985. Since then, additional medical manuscripts from this period have been excavated at six other locations, some of them identical in content. (2) Despite the wide variety of documents, this important find presents an essentially consistent ideology, indicating that these texts are part of a larger tradition and not simply a collection of fragments.

The "Physician-Shaman"

As early as 400 BCE, physicians had begun adopting a written "way" of medicine, which led to a marked expansion of written works during the Han dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE). They combined occult family oral traditions of the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) and earlier, with a natural history of the period in which the modern categories of religion, magic, and science are not clearly differentiated. …

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