In 1973, the excavation of a tomb dating back to the year 168 BC at Mawangdui, Changsha, a city in south China, shook the world. The body of the occupant of the tomb-a marquis-was preserved in a special liquid which prevented it from decaying and maintained partial elasticity of the flesh 2,000 years after it had been buried. This made people reevaluate China's early achievements in medicine and chemistry.
In fact, as in early medical history of many counties, medicine and chemistry in Huawere closely related to alchemy, and aimed at finding the elixir of immortality. The enthusiasm for finding a drug or plant that would make man live forever led people to make repeated chemical experiments and record the results.
Among the world's many civilizations, China's has a unique tradition of recording medical conditions and discoveries. Infectious fever is recorded on bone and tortoise shell inscriptions dating from as far back as 2000 BC. Texts carved on bronze wares also contain mention of arthralgia and such skin diseases as eczema, lichen and alopecia. Excavated seals of the Warring States Period tell of specialization in branches of medicine, as some owners of the seals specialized in exterior damage, some in ulcers and others in inflammations. The Classic of Mountains and Rivers, which was completed in the 2nd century BC, includes details of epidemic diseases, goiter, trachoma, dropsy and paralysis, as well as lists of plants, animals and minerals that may provide cures for these diseases.
The Yellow Emperor's Canon of Medicine, China's earliest collection of medical documents, took its present form in the first century BC. Though the exact date of compilation is unknown, what is certain is that most of the book was completed before the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220), and some might have been written during the Warring States Period. The theories it expounds, namely, about the organs of the human body, the "five elements" (metal, wood, water, fire and earth), and the internal organs, sense organs and brain waves interacting with each other, are unique in the world, and laid the foundations of traditional Chinese medicine.
A noted doctor of the Warring States Period, Bian Que, was well versed in many branches of medicine. Spurning the witchcraft that was fashionable in his time, he proposed four ways of diagnosis-observation (of the patient's complexion, expression, movements, tongue, etc.), auscultation and olfaction, interrogation, and pulse feeling and palpation-the methods that characterize traditional Chinese medicine.
The Han Dynasty saw the rise of the basic system of traditional Chinese medicine, and outstanding results were achieved in pathological studies, diagnosis, herbal medicine, acupuncture and physical exercise.
Zhang Zhongjing was a medical scientist in the later part of the Eastern Han Dynasty. He avidly read ancient medical classics, collected folk prescriptions and then, in combination with his own clinical experience, wrote the monumental medical work Treaties on Febrile and Other Diseases. By febrile diseases he meant epidemic cholera, malaria, pneumonia, flu and other infectious diseases. The "other diseases" mentioned in the title of his book refer to internal, surgical and gynecological ailments. In the book, he elaborated traditional Chinese medical theory and principles of treatment, laying the foundation for treatment based on differential diagnosis. Later, he came to be known as the "Sage of Medicine", because of his outstanding contribution to Chinese medicine. His book was also regarded as the "classic of medicine," and it remains a classic work of reference today for the study of traditional Chinese medicine.
Hua Tuo was also an outstanding medical scientist during the late Eastern Han Dynasty. He was well trained in various branches of medicine, and was especially good at surgery. His most outstanding achievement was the development of an anesthetic drug which was a unique creation in the world's medical history. Hua was the world's first doctor to use drugs to achieve total anesthesia in order to conduct a surgical operation. There are many stories, passed down from generation to generation, as to how he cured difficult diseases. He became known as the "Magical Doctor". His principle of resisting the onset of disease by working and doing exercises was also a major contribution to traditional Chinese medicine.
Acupuncture and moxibustion are other forms of treatment discovered by the Chinese in their long fight against diseases. These methods can often produce beneficial effects when other treatments have failed. Gold needles unearthed from the tomb of Liu Sheng in Mancheng, Hebei Province, in 1968 are the earliest medicinal needles discovered to date. The points of these needles fall mainly into three types of shapes, demonstrating that the technique of acupuncture had reached a fairly sophisticated level as early as in the Han Dynasty. Meanwhile, Han Dynasty tombs excavated in Shandong and Hebei provinces have yielded medicinal pills, bronze drug spoons, and medicinal bronze basins and mortars.
During the Warring States Period, monographs on acupuncture and moxibustion had already appeared, and the Tang Dynasty offered special courses on acupuncture and moxibustion. Traditional Chinese medicine made breakthrough progress during the Song Dynasty. After studying the meridians and collaterals of acupuncture theory, and on the basis of summing up experiences in acupuncture and moxibustion made by people of earlier times, Wang Weiyi, official medical officer during the Tiansheng reign period (1023-31) of the Song Dynasty, cast a life-sized bronze human figure for teaching acupuncture and moxibution. The model was marked with 666 acu-points, and each point bore its name. Students used the model to practice, and during examinations a layer of yellow wax was applied, so as to cover up the points and their names. The inside of the model was filled with water. During examinations, if the insertion was made at the right point, water would ooze out, but if a student failed to locate the required acu-point, no water would come out. There is a replica of the figure in the Museum of Chinese History in Beijing.
Techniques combining breathing with bodily exercises were practiced during the Spring and Autumn Period. Pictures on the brick wall of a Han tomb at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan Province show people engaging in such exercises. Forty-four men and women in four rows are portrayed in different positions, such as bending the knees and holding the leg, walking in a stylized way, stretching out the arm and holding the head high, lying prone on the ground and sticking out the neck. Next to each picture is the term for the exercise such as "bear gait", and "monkey cry".
Hua Tuo, an outstanding Eastern Han medical scientist, attached particular importance to combined physical and breathing exercises. Summarizing the theories and practices of the method by his predecessors, he classified the routines into five types, which imitated the movements of the tiger, the bear, the monkey, the deer and the bird, respectively. There are countless offshoots of this original classification.
Ge Hong was an alchemist and doctor of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420). His work Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan, The Book of Master Baopu summarizes China's ancient alchemy and records many observations of chemical phenomena, making it an important book for the study of the history of chemistry in China. Ge was the first doctor to write about smallpox. Although it was around the year 1000 that doctors in China discovered how to prevent smallpox by the inoculation method, they did not publicize it until 1500, and Western scientists did not realize that vaccination could prevent smallpox until the early 19th century.
Wang Shuhe, who was once the imperial physician, wrote the book Classic of Pulse Diagnosis, which is the earliest book on the study of the pulse preserved to this day. He divided the pulse into twenty-four categories, which basically include all the phenomena in circulatory physiology.
The Tang Dynasty (618-907) was a golden age in Chinese history, and, not unexpectedly, medical studies made new breakthroughs in this period. The Revised Materia Medica, completed during the Tang Dynasty, was discovered at the Dunhuang Grottoes in 1900. This was the first reference book on pharmacy ever revised under the auspices of a government in the world. Consisting of 56 volumes and lavishly illustrated, it has entries on 850 kinds of drugs.
Li Shizhen (1518-93), a medical scientist of the Ming Dynasty, was the author of Compendium of Materia Medica. To complete this book, he spent nearly 30 years touring the country, collecting herbal specimens and folk prescriptions. He also personally tasted and tested many herbal drugs to understand their medicinal effect. In addition, he consulted more than 800 medical books. Running to 1.9 million characters, the book records 1,892 kinds of drugs, which is 370 kinds more than any other previous work, and over 10,000 prescriptions, in addition to more than 1,000 illustrations of drugs. Its high scientific value not only resulted in its huge popularity throughout the country, as evidenced by repeated editions after it was initially published in 1596, but also in translated editions into Latin, German, French, English, Russian and Japanese, among other foreign languages, thus making it a document of medical science of global importance.