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History & Findings of Chinese Herbal Medicine


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Chinese herbal remedies have a history that dates back more than 5,000 years ago. The discovery of herbal remedies is ascribed to legendary emperor Shen Nung (2696 BC). Shen Nung, said to be the father of Chinese agriculture and leader of an ancient clan, tasted hundreds of herbs to test the medicinal properties (Han/Cold, Jeh/Heat, Wen/Warmth, Liang/Coolness).

Fig 1 - Shen Nung


The acquired knowledge about herbal medicine was passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth, since there were no written records at that time. The earliest Chinese writing dates back to late Shang dynasty (1200 BC). These writings are called Oracle Bone Inscriptions which were found at the site of the last Shang capital near present-day Anyang, Henan province. The ancient Chinese used these bones as records of their activities like hunting, warfare, weather, selection of auspicious days for ceremonies. Records of illnesses, medicines and treatment methods were also found inscribed in the Oracle Bone.

Fig 2 - Oracle Bone Inscriptions


Over the millennia, Chinese have used themselves as guinea pigs to continue testing plants for their medicinal properties. The accumulation of practical experience strengthened the understanding on pharmacologial category, toxicity, and lethal dosage of herbal medicine.


Tribal shamans practiced herbal remedies. Mountain recluses retreated deep into the hills to practice “the way of long life” and lived as hermits. The practices include development of herbal diet and medicine, therapeutic breathing techniques, and Kung Fu exercises. Mountain recluses contributed to herbal remedies not only by gathering information about herbs, but also by linking Traditional Chinese Medicine with martial arts which is still in common practice today.


The first written record about herbal medicine was compiled in 1065-771 BC. Wu Shi Er Bing Fang (Prescriptions for Fifty-Two Diseases) was discovered in 1973 during the excavation of Ma Wang Dui tomb at Changsha, Hunan province. Prior to this discovery, Shen Nung Pen Ts'ao Ching (Divine Husbandman's Classic of Materia Medica) had been the earliest Chinese pharmacopoeia.


It took approximately 2,000 years before the work of Shen Nung and his followers were documented in a book called Shen Nung Pen Ts'ao Ching . The book recorded over 365 medicinal substances. The true author of this book is unknown.


Fig 3 - Shen Nung Pen Tsao Ching


The Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) lasted almost four and a half centuries. Arts, sciences, and philosophy flourished during this period of time. Chinese medicine became a profession and the first steps were taken to record the remedies of herbal medicine. The theories of legendary emperor Huang Ti (2600 BC) were written down in Huang Ti Nei Ching (Yellow Emperor's Classic of Medicine). Huang Ti Nei Ching preserved a lot of ancient medical knowledge and consisted of two treatises. One of the two is a dialogue between Huang Ti and his minister, Qibo. The other is a description of anatomy, medical physiology, and acupuncture. The true authorship of this book is unknown.


Fig 4 - Huang Ti

Fig 5 - Huang Ti Nei Ching


The physician, Hua Tuo (110-207 AD), was first in world history to perform surgery using anesthetics. He developed a series of exercises based on the movements of five animals and prescribed them to patients. "Frolics of The Five Animals" are still practiced and used today. The five animals are: tiger, deer, bear, ape, and crane.


Fig 6 - Hua Tuo


Chang Chung Ching (150-219 AD) wrote an authoritative and valuable practical guide, Shang Han Lun (Treatise on Colds and Fevers). This book contains 100 effective herbal formulas, many of them still in use today. The book also implied a theoretical framework that led to hundreds of books analyzing, explaining, and reforming it.


Fig 7 - Chang Chung Ching


Fig 8 - Shang Hung Lun


Tao Hung Ching (452-536 AD) wrote his own book called Ben Cao Jing Ji Zhu (Collection of Commentaries on the Divine Husbandman's Classic of Materia Medica) based on Shen Nung Pen Ts'ao Ching. He divided the herbs into categories and qualities then added 365 new herbs to his materia medica , bringing the total number of herbs in this book to 730.


Fig 9 - Tao Hung Ching

Wan Shu Ho (180-270 AD) devoted his time to research pulse phenomena in human being and is considered as the world pioneer in this field. His outstanding work Mai Jing (The Pulse Classics) described his knowledge about twenty-four different pulse pattern which is essential to diagnose different illnesses.


Fig 10 - Wang Shu Ho


After the Han dynasty, much elements of Chinese medicine were established and the process of consolidation continued in Tang, Song, and Ming dynasties. The founding emperor of Tang dynasty established the first school of medicine in 629 AD and condensed all medical knowledge throughout the empire.


Fig 11 - Sun Si Miao


Sun Si Miao (581-682 AD), a famous doctor of the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), specialized in the field of nutrition and diet as a medical therapy. He composed his famous Qian Jin Yao Fang (Prescriptions Worth a Thousand Pieces of Gold) with thirty scrolls and later composed Qian Jin Yi Fang (Suplement to Prescriptions Worth a Thousand Pieces of Gold) with another thirty scrolls. His theory was proved accurate by Western researchers some 1,000-1,300 years later.


In 1247 AD, Sung Tzu wrote the book Hsi Yun Lu (Washing Away the Wrong). This book is recognized as the oldest literature on forensic medicine in all civilizations. The writer described systematic examination during investigation of suspicious death.


Fig 12 - Sung Tzu


One of the best known Chinese medical works is Pen Tsao Kang Mu (The Great Herbal), compiled in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD) by Li Shih Chen (1518-1593 AD). This book includes descriptions of 1,892 different kinds of herbal medicines. This book has been translated into many different foreign languages, and has exercised a profound influence on East Asian and European countries.


Fig 13 - Li Shih Chen


Wu Yu Hsing (1582-1652 AD) wrote a book called Wen Yi Lun (Treatise on Acute Epidemic Febrile Diseases) which brought forward the concept that certain diseases were caused by a transmissible agent.


Fig 14 - Pen Tsao Kang Mu


Fig 15 - Wu Yu Hsing


Wang Chin Ren (1768-1831 AD) advocates the importance of understanding anatomy in order to diagnose and treat diseases. He also strongly promoted the concept that by improving blood circulation and clearing the static blood, many illnesses could be resolved.


Fig 16 - Wang Chin Ren


For almost 3,000 years, abundant records of Chinese Traditional Medicine had been written by many herbalists. The books described above make up of only the most well known texts that are frequently consulted by Traditional Chinese Medicine herbalists and researchers.


There has been a significant interaction between Eastern and Western medical systems for several hundred years. Western military and missionary activities created an influx of Western medical knowledge into China. Chinese doctors who had studied Western medicine demanded banning of Traditional Chinese Medicine in 1929. However, such demand did not win sufficient support due to extensive opposition throughout the country. By 1933, a chief justice of the Chinese Supreme Court was appointed to systematize and promote the Traditional Chinese Medicine. In contemporary China, both Traditional Chinese and Western medicine coexist and are practiced alongside each other.


In 1931, a wealthy American business man named G.M. Gest was cured from an eye disease by a Chinese physician after all other efforts have failed. He was so grateful that he collected 75,000 books about Chinese medicine and established the Gest Oriental Library at Princeton University. Much of the science of Chinese herbal medicine has been researched and confirmed since then.


In 1977, Zhong Yao Da Ci Dian (Encyclopedia of Chinese Materia Medica) was published by Jiangsu Institute of New Medicine. It is the most comprehensive Chinese material medica ever, consisting of three volumes, comprising a total of 3,588 pages. The book described 5,767 herbal drugs with 4,500 drawings, many in great detail. This book also included chemical structures of compounds reported present or isolated from drugs described in the encyclopedia.


Since 1971, there has been a rapid growth in awareness and use of Traditional Chinese Medicine in western countries. Universities around the world are teaching degrees in Traditional Chinese Medicine and more research reports are proving the effectiveness of herbal remedies. Dissatisfaction with Western medical treatments and often undesirable side effects of pharmaceutical drugs has driven more and more people to seek for alternative help.



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