1. History of Acupuncture in China
Acupuncture has a clearly recorded history of about 2,000 years, but some authorities claim that it has been practiced in China for some 4,000 years. The Chinese believe that the practice of acupuncture began during the Stone Age when stone knives or sharp edged tools, described by the character ‘Bian’, were used to puncture and drainage abscesses. In fact the Chinese character ‘Bian’ means the ‘use of a sharp edged stone to treat disease’, and the modern Chinese character ‘Bi’, representing a disease of pain, is almost certainly derived from the use of ‘Bian stones’ for the treatment of painful complaints.
The origin of Chinese medicine is a fascinating story and acupuncture represents only one facet of their medical system. The first recorded attempt at conceptualizing and treating disease dates back to about 1500 BC during the Shang dynasty. Tortoise shells with inscriptions dating from that time have been found, and it is thought that these were used for divination in the art of healing. The philosophical basis of much of the very early Chinese medicine seems to have been to seek harmony between the living and their dead ancestors, and the good and evil spirits that inhabited the earth.
2. The development of Chinese philosophy
The Warring States period (about 2,000 years ago) is a particularly interesting time in Chinese history and has exerted a great deal of influence on Chinese thought. Two main philosophical ideologies became part of the mainstream of Chinese thought at this time, Taoism and Confucianism.
Confucianism defined the social status of prince and pauper within Chinese society and elected the Emperor a god. It results in a basically feudal and totalitarian system of government that still exists today, in an adapted form. Confucianism impinged on medicine in that it was opposed to the development of anatomy and surgery, one of its main tenets being that the whole body was sacred and should remain complete throughout life and also in death. The Confucians believed that it was important to present oneself to ‘the ancestors’ whole, and therefore one of the most feared methods of execution in ancient China was decapitation. Acupuncture and related methods were the logical answer to this constraint, as they were able to cure internal disease with external means.
The Tao literally means the ‘way’ and the philosophy of Taoism is a method of maintaining harmony between man and the world, and between this world and beyond. The Tao, or the ‘way’, has been linked to a separate creed called Taoism but its basic naturalistic philosophies permeate all Chinese thought and religion, including Buddhism. Yin and Yang are very much part of the Tao, as the Book of Changes states, ‘one Yin, one Yang, being called the Tao’. The religion of Taoism became formalized during the Warring States period and a book of poems entitled the Tao attributed to Lao Tsu (500 BC), describes many of the basic concepts within this philosophy.
The Taoist concept of health is to attempt to attain perfect harmony between the opposing forces of the natural world, between Yin and Yang, the belief being that the only way to be healthy is to adjust to the natural forces within the world and become part of their rhythm. It is further realized that the natural forces are completely dependent on each other; earth is dependent on rain and rain is dependent on heaven, which in turn cannot exist without the earth. In the same way Yin cannot exist without Yang, and yet the two are opposites. The concept of a unified, but at the same time polar force, governing natural events, is central to much of Chinese thoughts.
At first glance these concepts seem to be an irrelevant side-line to the development of a system of medicine, but acupuncture, and its development can only really be understood if the reader grasps the traditional Chinese approach to health and disease In essence, the ideal of health is perfect harmony between the forces of Yin and Yang; this represents the correct ‘way’ or Tao. Disharmony brings disease and death. Taoism is a passive philosophy, exalting the art of detailed and accurate observations. This was also an essential part of the development of Chinese medical thought and allowed detailed observations on organ structure and function to be made.