On the history of Chinese Medicine

Oracle stone ca.5000 BC

Oracle stone ca.5000 BC



China is home to a very old civilisation, going back about 6000 years. Despite a very varied political history, the cultural continuity of the region is astounding and its cultural influence beyond its actual political boundaries has always been considerable.

script - 4th C BC

script – 4th C BC

In China, a system of script was developed  as early as 1200 BC. Remarkably, it  has not changed very much throughout the centuries, providing an ever growing corpus of written sources about Chinese history, culture and knowledge in many areas of science, art and crafts, administration and social life.

Hence there is plenty of evidence that in China a sophisticated system of medical diagnosis and therapeutic intervention began  to develop about 3000 years ago and has been carried forward, with many of its basic principles in tact, to the present day – although the tradition remained not entirely unchallenged.

Five Element Model

I think, it is fair to say, that all models of healing or medical practice built on a culturally accepted philosophical interpretation of the human condition and the order of the universe.

Yin and Yang model

Chinese Medicine bases its understanding of the human body and mind  mainly on daoist and buddhist teachings and their model of cosmology. Unsurprisingly, we find that where the philosophical or religious teachings go, the medical model follows. See also >>>



Thus Chinese Medicine made its way into countries like Japan, Korea, Tibet, Vietnam, but also into parts of Russia. Even in the days of the communist Soviet Union,  buddhism was prevalent in some autonomous republics in the far east,  such as  Buryatia and  Tuva Republic , but also south of the Caucasus such as Kalmykia  –  and along with it the use Chinese Medicine.

Pre-modern western Europe, on the other hand, owed what knowledge of Chinese Medicine it had, in the first instance, to missionaries, travellers and sinologists, and during the colonial days of the 18th and 19th centuries, to medically interested philosophers, linguists and anthropologists – rather than medical students or doctors, who thought their scientific models far superior.

This changed, when in  the 1960ties the old mechanism of cultural transference started to kick in: in the wake of the peace movement directed against the Vietnam war, the flower power movement nurtured by Indian philosophy and yoga,  and the enthusiasm for Japanese martial arts  buddhism  became popular in the US and Europe. When China opened up after president Nixon’s very successful state visit  in 1972, Westerners got into the country, Chinese got out, and a stream of traditional Chinese medical knowledge, wrapped in written and orally transmitted tradition, reached the West.  Yet again,  Chinese Medicine had followed in the footsteps of the socio-philosophical concept it had originally grown out of, and thus got a foothold in the West.

Present state of affairs

In the last twenty years,  lost or hidden classical resource material on Chinese Medicine has been retrieved,  classically trained Chinese physicians have returned to practice and teaching in hospitals, literature from Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet and other countries is being recovered and complements the picture.

China has become a world power not just politically, but also economically and scientifically.  Chinese scholars trained in Chinese Medicine as well as the natural sciences  or western medicine are now developing methodologies capable of  scientifically evaluating Chinese Medicine based diagnoses, interventions and their outcomes. Many Chinese students and scholars now work in research projects at universities and institutes in the West.
It also is becoming ever more obvious that our universities and teaching institutes suffer from a lack of students, scholars and researchers who read and speak Chinese well enough to widen and deepen the Wests  understanding of the Chinese medical model.  Those who do speak the language have become leading in the field. Literature and teaching models from the 70ties, 80ties and 90ties are being revised, as the internet is providing access to resources and commentaries, training institutes, university degrees up to PhD level we could only have dreamed of in those days.

The question, if classical scientific research will develop the tools to measure phenomena encapsulated in obscure Chinese medical metaphores, is becoming already becoming  redundant. It is happening.   The medical profession will be brought to a point where the paradigm change has become unavoidable and the field will have to open up to broader views of the human condition.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) – not quite so traditional

During the 19th and 20th century, China and its traditions faced two major challenges, the first coming from without, the second from within, both intent on modernising society.
After centuries of seclusion, China was, in the late 18th and throughout the 19th century, forced to open up to the kind of western trade, political interference, and ideological and technological pressure know as colonialisation.

Red guard destroys ancient Chinese scripts, a Buddha statue, a crucifix and an American book

In the 20th century, this trend for modernisation continued, as communist and maoist ideology condemned tradition and heralded a new world – that of socialism and the natural sciences and Chinese new nationalism, as this poster from 1967 with the slogan : “Destroy the old world; Forge the new world”

Throughout the turmoils upheavals during colonialisation and the Cultural Revolution, China suffered great loss of life and wealth, but also of scholarship and precious, irreplaceable written resources, amongst them works on Chinese Medicine. Other material was hidden away.

When Mao Tse Dong changed his mind in the 1950ties and decreed that a body of  material be collected and publicised under the name of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), scholars from abroad had no way of assessing how much of this material was traditional, how it had been selected and what else may still be held back by Chinese doctors and scholars who preferred not to cooperate. Since, as explained above, Chinese Medicine has returned to its roots and is reaching out to to and playing an increasing role on the forefront of medical research.