Traditional Chinese Medicine History

Through trial and error, the ancient Chinese developed medicines from indigenous plants.

The history of traditional Chinese medicine can be traced through archaeological excavations extending back millions of years.

Primitive people spent most of their time on basic survival: hunting, locating and preparing plants for food, building shelters, and defending themselves. It's easy to imagine that over time, they'd have sampled most of the local plants in their search for food. In time, an oral record evolved that identified those plants that made good food, those that were useful for building, those that had an effect on illness, and those that were poisonous. Through trial and error, a primitive form of herbal medicine and dietary therapy was taking shape in China.


Fire also played a central role in their lives as a source of warmth, fuel, and light. As they huddled around fires, it was only natural that our ancestors would discover the healing powers of heat. Those powers would have been especially evident for cold, damp ailments such as arthritis, for which heat provides immediate relief. This was the origin of the art of moxibustion, the therapeutic application of heat to treat a wide variety of conditions.

These ancient people must have experienced a variety of injuries during their rugged lives. A natural reaction to pain is to rub or press on the affected area. This hands-on therapy gradually evolved into a system of therapeutic manipulation. People discovered that pressing on certain points on the body had wide-ranging effects. They began to use pieces of sharpened bone or stone to enhance the sensation, and acupuncture was born.

As Chinese society developed a written history, documenting the powers of medicine moved from an oral to a written system. Find out more about early documentation of traditional Chinese medicine on the next page.

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Written History of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Ancient healers compiled their knowledge into texts that formed the basis of Chinese medicine.

The written history of traditional Chinese medicine has evolved mostly over the last 3,000 years. Archaeological digs from the Shang Dynasty (1,000 b.c.) have revealed medical writings inscribed on divination bones: early shamans, mostly women, used scapula bones to perform divination rites; later these bones were also used for writing.

The discovery in 1973 of 11 medical texts written on silk has shed some light on the sophisticated practices of that early period of Chinese history. Dated to 168 B.C., the texts discuss diet, exercise, moxibustion, and herbal therapy.


Liberally mixed with shamanistic magic, an extensive text, Prescriptions for Fifty-two Ailments, describes the pharmacological effects of herbs and foods.

Also dating from about this time is the legend of Shen Nong, the Emperor of Agriculture, who tasted 100 herbs daily to assess their qualities. (He is said to have been poisoned many times in the course of his investigations.)

The book that is attributed to him is known as the Classic of the Agriculture Emperor's Materia Medica. It lists 365 medicines, comprising 252 plants, 67 animals, and 46 minerals.

Tao Hong-Jing, the editor of the version of Shen Nong's Materia Medica in use today, divided the herbs into three classes. The upper-class herbs are nontoxic tonics that strengthen and nourish the body, the middle-grade herbs are tonics with therapeutic qualities, and the lower grade consists of herbs that treat disease or possess some toxicity.

This classification system gives a glimpse into an important principle in traditional Chinese medicine: It is better to strengthen the body and prevent disease than to fight illness once it has already taken hold.

Ignoring preventive health care and waiting to treat disease was considered as foolish as waiting until you are thirsty to dig a well.

By A.D. 400, the basic foundations of traditional Chinese medicine had been put into written form. By this time, most of the magical aspects of medicine had been left behind; there was an increasing belief in the powers of nature to heal disease.

The most important book compiled between 300 B.C. and A.D. 400 is The Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic (Huang Di Nei Jing). The work is purported to be a series of conversations between the Yellow Emperor, Huang Di, and his minister, Qi Bo, although many historians believe it is a compilation of all the medical knowledge of that period. The work is divided into two books: Simple Questions and Spiritual Axis.

The first book deals with general theoretical principles, while the second more specifically describes the principles of acupuncture and the treatment of disease. Remarkably, this ancient work is still valid; it forms the foundation for the contemporary practice of traditional Chinese medicine. For example, the Nei Jing states that cold diseases should be treated with hot herbs, and hot diseases should be treated with cold herbs. This principle is still followed today in clinical practice.

Hot, inflammatory infections are treated with cold herbs such as honeysuckle flowers or Coptis root; cold, debilitating conditions such as chronic fatigue are treated with warm, stimulating herbs such as ginseng or Astragalus roots.

Modern research has confirmed that these plants contain constituents with strong pharmacological effects on these specific conditions. By the second century A.D., physicians all over China were compiling writings of the latest discoveries in acupuncture and herbal medicine. It was during this time that the famous physician Hua Tuo wrote about herbal anesthesia.

Although his formula for the anesthetic has been lost, his unique system of acupuncture points is still in use. He was also a pioneer in recommending exercise as a method of maintaining wellness. He is quoted as saying "a running stream never goes bad," meaning exercise moves qi and prevents the stagnation that leads to disease.

Another pioneer of the time was Zhang Zhongjing, who wrote Treatise on Febrile and Miscellaneous Diseases after witnessing an epidemic that ravaged his city and killed most of his relatives. This highly regarded physician developed a system of diagnosis so sophisticated that it is used by practitioners in modern hospitals 1,700 years after his death.

Chinese medicine showed a steady progression over the centuries. Learn more about the advancement of traditional Chinese medicine on the next page.

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Progress of Medicine in China

During the Ming Dynasty, many medical specialists compiled the works of their forebears, further expanding the base of medical knowledge.

The progress of medicine in China runs parallel to the nation's political history. Between the second and fifth centuries A.D., China experienced a period marked by war and political turmoil.

One of the ironies of war is that it has a tendency to lead to advances in medicine. The periodic times of unrest in Chinese history, such as this, were no exception, as the increased need for practical, convenient, effective remedies led to further developments in medical treatment.


During this time, Ge Hong wrote Prescriptions for Emergencies in order to spread the knowledge of acupuncture and moxibustion to the masses.

Around A.D. 650, Sun Simiao compiled Prescriptions Worth A Thousand Gold, which integrated the clinical experiences of the different schools of acupuncture at that time.

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), China's Impe­­rial Medical Bureau established departments of Acupuncture, Pharmacology, and Medical Specialties. Numerous additional treatises and compilations of medical knowledge and experience were prepared.

In the Five Dynasties period (907-1368 A.D.), advancements in printing techniques led to a dramatic increase in the publication of medical texts.

One of the important books of the period was Canon on the Origin of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, in which Wang Zhizhong incorporated the clinical experiences of the practitioners of folk medicine.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), many medical specialists compiled the works of their forebears, further expanding the extensive base of medical knowledge.

The most famous physician of the period was Li Shi Zheng (1518-1593), a kind and generous healer who did not accept payment for his services. After reviving the son of a prince from a coma, he was appointed court physician and served in the Imperial Academy of Medicine.

His most incredible achievement was his 40-year effort in writing the Ben Cao Gong Mu (General Catalog of Herbs), a monumental work published after his death. Consisting of 52 volumes at the time of its printing, the Ben Cao Gong Mu remains an important reference for traditional Chinese herbalists.

More recent advances in traditional Chinese medicine still rely on ancient practices and theories. Find out more about recent medicinal history on the next page.

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Recent History of Chinese Medicine

The recent history of traditional Chinese medicine saw the integration of new techniques with ancient understanding. This integration process continued until the 19th century, when the Opium War of 1840 turned China into a semi-colonial society. Western colonial powers derided traditional medicine as primitive and outdated.

The Communist party came to power in the mid-20th century, bringing much turmoil to China; however, the Communists saw the need to promote traditional Chinese medicine to avoid dependence on the West.


A great need for traditional doctors arose since there were far too few Western-trained physicians to serve the huge population: only 10,000 Western-trained doctors were available to serve 400 million people.

Traditional Chinese medicine began a course of revival that continues today. Many Western-trained physicians and scientists in China started to conduct research on acupuncture, moxibustion, and herbal medicine, and a gradual integration of the two systems began.

In 1945, an acupuncture clinic opened in a Western hospital in China for the first time. Since then, traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine have been practiced side-by-side in Chinese hospitals, sometimes by a physician who has been trained in both fields.

For example, a cancer patient might receive radiation to treat a tumor then be sent to the herbal department for formulas to strengthen his immune system and normalize his blood count.

Since the 1970s, Chinese hospitals have trained students from more than 100 countries in the principles of traditional medicine.

Interest in traditional Chinese medicine was sparked in the United States in the early 1970s when New York Times reporter James Reston experienced an acute appendicitis attack while in China.

His report of receiving acu­puncture to relieve his post-operative abdominal pain brought an awareness of this system of healing to the general public.

Since then, acupuncture and herbal medicine have gradually taken hold in North America. With more than 10,000 practitioners and an increasing number of schools of traditional Chinese medicine, this ancient system has taken its well-deserved place in the Western world.

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Bill Schoenbart has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) since 1991, when he earned a Masters degree in TCM. He teaches TCM medical theory and herbalism at an acupuncture school in California, and also maintains a clinical practice.

Ellen Shefi is a licensed massage technician, licensed acupuncturist, and registered dietitian. She operates a private acupuncture practice, has assisted in developing acupuncture protocol, and has contributed to a national research project funded by the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine. She is a member of the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, the American Herb Association, and the Oregon Acupuncture Association.