Acupuncture and History

The history of Acupuncture and Chinese medicine is rich with myth and story, in fact the very beginnings of Chinese medicine come from a myth.

Legend recounts that the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di) asserted himself as the supreme ruler of the universe. He occupied the center, leaving the south to the Fire Emperor (Yandi), sometimes known as the Red Emperor, who was said to have the body of a man the head of a bull. Legend has it that the Fire Emperor taught humans how to cultivate grains which earned him the title of Divine farmer. The Red Emperor possessed a magic whisk which was used to discover if a plant was poisonous or not and to determine the nature of each plant. The Red Emperor would try each plant himself to examine its effects, since his celestial body allowed him to neutralize any poisonous matter. The day came, however, when the poison got the better of his skill.

The Fire Emperor’s rival, The Yellow Emperor (Huang Di) was also attributed with therapeutic skills. In fact, most things were attributed to the Yellow Emperor and his ministers: music, pestle and mortar, weapons, mirror and mathematical scales, to name a few. It was one of the Yellow Emperor’s ministers, Wu Peng, who pioneered the art of medicine, and another minister, Lei Gong who pioneered the art of surgery. Yet a third minister, Qi Bo, is featured in the medical text, the Huang Di Nei Jing, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine.

Whatever the historical validity of both the Yellow Emperor and the Red Emperor’s scientific skills, both have given their names to two medical works still studied in Chinese medicine and acupuncture schools today: Huang Di Nei Jing (Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine) and the Shen Nong Bencaojing (The Divine Farmer’s Classic of Herbal Medicine).

Other stories and legends permeate the history of Chinese Medicine and acupuncture.

Ancient Daoist Shamans used oracle bones to divine messages from the gods. The use of bones as instruments in divination and health come up again in acupuncture history as the first acupuncture needles were made from sharpened stones and animal bones.

Another legend about the herb Dang Gui (angelica sinensis) recounts the story of two brothers from a poor family. The idleness of the elder was matched only by the diligence of the younger. After the death of their parents, the elder brother sent his younger brother away and took sole possession of the family property. The brother was left with only a bow and some arrows for hunting.

From that time on the younger brother spent his days hunting. One day the brother noticed a falcon resting on a huge chestnut tree. As he took aim at the bird the bird spoke to him in human language, appealing to him not to fire the arrow. The bird promised that if the boy let him go he would give him seeds of medicinal herbs. The brother took the offer and let the falcon go. The falcon spit out some seeds which the brother took and returned to his hut. He planted the seeds in a plot of ground facing the sun. Three days later, young shoots appeared, and three days after that the shoots had become sturdy stems. Small flowers as red as blood blossomed. The boy broke off a piece of the root of the plant and ate it and instantly he became robust and his whole body invigorated. The boy gave roots to the villagers to eat and those who had been sick immediately became better, those who had not been sick gained strength. On that day, small birds with red plumage and golden beaks flew around the roof of the brother’s hut screeching, dang gui, dang gui. Thus the plant was called Dang Gui.

Yet another legend in the history of acupuncture and Chinese medicine is the story of the Honorarium of Apricots.

Dong Feng, along with Zhang Zhongjing and Hua Tuo, was considered to be one of the three most extraordinary physicians of ancient China. At the end of his life Dong Feng, like a good Daoist, retired to live in the Lu mountains. He still saw patients as required, but he adopted the unique practice of only accepting apricot trees for payment, the number of trees would vary according to the gravity of the illness. The number of Dong Feng’s apricot trees grew and grew until he had an orchard of apricot trees.

The expression ‘apricot orchard’ has been used ever since in the praise of a good physician.

In a culture full of myth and legend one more story about acupuncture and history stands out as a tale that can be verified by fact – two tall bronze facts to be exact!

A bronze man contributed to the development of acupuncture from the eleventh century onward. A physician, Wang Weiyi (c.987-1067) had the idea of casting two statues in bronze representing a man from front and from behind. On these statues were engraved the 657 known acupuncture points. At the same time as the sculptures were created, Wang Weiyi wrote a manual to accompany the sculptures called the Tongren Shuxue Zhen Jiu Tujing (Illustrated Manual of the Bronze Man Showing Acupuncture and Moxibustion Points). Later, the text of this work was engraved on two stone pillars that were more than two meters high and seven meters in width, and the pillars were erected for public benefit.

These are just a few of the myriad of legends and stories that surround acupuncture and history. Come visit the Academy of Classical Oriental Sciences to see our own Illustrated Pillar and beautiful painting depicting Dong Feng’s Apricot orchard.