Who Did What in Ancient China: Healers and Medicine

In ancient China, sick people went to see a healer. Healers were like doctors although thousands of years ago, healers knew less about the science of medicine than we do today. They sought the help of magical spirits; the people called them “shaman”, “medicine man” or “folk doctor.” But about 1,100 years ago, Chinese doctors began to go to medical school.

As civilization advanced, magic played less of a role in healing.

In time, healers learned various techniques that they utilized to help their patients. They used techniques such as Tui Na’ (massage therapy); acupuncture; moxabustion; herbs; nutrition; Qigong (breathing techniques and meditation); Tai Chi Chuan or other martial arts, Feng Shui (the practice of positioning objects based on yin and yang and the flow of chi or energy) and Chinese astrology. This knowledge was handed down from one generation to the next.

Philosophies such as Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, also influenced Chinese medicine. The concept of yin and yang was part of the philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism. Ancient Chinese healers believed that nature was made up of two opposing forces, yin and yang, which must be in harmonious balance for good health.

Yin and yang are cosmic energies or qi (chi). They reside in the universe and in the human body. Yin is negative energy: cold, dark and female. Yang is positive energy: light, warm and male. Even though they are opposites, yin and yang are inseparable. Everything contains yin and yang in varying degrees but they were part of an overall unifying force, Tao. (Beshore, 1998, p. 11)

Visually, yin and yang are represented by a circle. Within this circle are two curved forms, one black and one white, and both shaped like tadpoles. Yin and yang never exist individually yet one may be in excess of the other. It is this imbalance that causes ill-health.

If yin and yang are in balance or in harmony within a person, good health prevails. But if the balance is disturbed, the job of the Chinese healer is to restore harmony. Common treatments used included the treatments stated previously.

The Five Elements or the Five Zangs, was another belief system which stated that everything is made of earth, wood, water, fire and metal which are interrelated to each other and with human structure and function. Human organs each have a corresponding element: fire, metal, water, wood, and earth. Illness indicates disharmony among the elements. So, a healer utilized the philosophy of the Five Elements by treating a patient based on the element or elements in discord. (Ross, 1982, p. 29 – 31)

Complex philosophies such as the doctrine of yin and yang and the five elements became the basis for diagnosing and treating illness. According to historians, these practices dated back to the 6th Century BC.

The cosmos had to be taken into account when diagnosing a patient. The stars, season of the year and even the hour of the day of the start of the illness, had to be determined before treatment could begin. Medicine was needed.

Early alchemists, or chemists, mixed various materials together to form potions that could cure humans of various diseases. (Beshore, 1998, p. 15-17)

They used the theory of the five elements to make and prescribe the drugs. (Ross, 1982, p. 50)

Herb and other plants were made into medicines. Sometimes, animal and mineral elements were also used. A book on drugs written in the sixteenth century lists over two thousand substances used to make over sixteen thousand medicines. Ancient Chinese doctors could not always explain why so many of their drug potions worked, but they keenly observed the positive reactions of their patients when the herbal medicines succeeded.

All parts of an herb were used including the stem, seeds, leaves, fruit, and roots. Different processes were used involving drying, roasting and soaking in water. Some herbs were used in their natural state. Ginseng was especially popular because the ancient Chinese believed the root of the plant had magical qualities for prolonging life.

They also used the ephedra plant which was esteemed for reducing excessive bleeding and relieving coughing caused by asthma. Medicines of animal origin were also popular. The secretion of toads was used for stimulation purposes. Minerals like mercury and sulfur were often used in drugs that proved effective for the treatment of many ailments. For example, arsenic was used in an ointment for treating skin rashes and sores; zinc sulfate was prescribed for bladder disorders.

Acupuncture is believed to have existed during the Stone Age of China when flint needles used in acupuncture were discovered. Shamans may have used acupuncture to drive demons from the body of a sick person. During the Iron and Bronze Ages, flint needles were replaced by metal.

Acupuncture is a form of therapy in which one or more needles are inserted into the patient’s skin. The needles penetrate the skin in varying depths and at various meridians or points of the body. Acupuncture restored the yin and yang to a balanced state within a patient’s body. The needles released an excess of yin or yang depending on which force was out of balance. Most illnesses required more than one treatment of acupuncture.

Acupuncture has endured as a healing art in China for more than 3,000 years. Moxa or moxabustion requires the use of fire instead of needles. The healer or doctor would pound the dried leaves of the mugwort plant and roll them onto a cone shape.

Several cones would be placed at specific spots on the patient’s body and then ignited. The burning cones would be removed just before the fire actually touched the skin. Moxa caused an intense stimulation of the blood and nerves in the areas treated, leaving a red spot where the burning cone had been. Mugwort leaves were eventually replaced by mulberry leaves, ginger and monkshood.

Ancient Chinese healers were also interested in preventative medicine. Nutrition was considered important as were exercise and mental serenity. They also developed ways to stop the spreading of disease. They destroyed germs by burning a chemical that disinfected a deceased person’s home and steamed the clothes of sick people so that others would not get sick. They also developed a primitive form of vaccination for smallpox. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that Western medicine discovered the fundamental idea of immunization against disease. (Beshore, 1998, p. 31)

The ancient Chinese discovered certain diagnostic techniques which were not used in the West until centuries later. These techniques included: checking the patient’s pulse; examining the patient’s tongue, voice and body; observation of the patient’s face and ear; observation of the patient’s body for tenderness; examination of the vein on the index finger on children; and comparisons of the relative warmth or coolness of different parts of the body. Traditional Chinese Medicine developed as a noninvasive therapeutic medicine rooted in ancient belief systems and traditions.

Beshore, George. Science in Ancient China. New York: Franklin Watts, 1998

Ross, Frank, Jr. Oracle Bones, Stars and Wheelbarrows: Ancient Chinese Science and Technology. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.