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Origins of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) -- From the Blog

How Did Traditional Chinese Medicine Develop?

The origins of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) are at least 5,000 years old. How were theories of acupuncture, meridians and Qi, etc. established?


Wondering about the evolution and origins of TCM? Who gets credit for inventing Chinese medicine?

Similar to the Bible of Judeo-Christians, the Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita of the ancient Indian subcontinent, the principles of TCM have many authors. And the roots of TCM, in fact, predate the origins of the written word in China!

Historians believe written language in China dates to the 18th century, BCE. It’s likely that even centuries before this time, TCM concepts were already in practice.

Modern TCM uses ancient theories mostly in practice by two modalities: herbalism and acupuncture. (Acupuncturists often dispense herbs to patients; there are also other TCM healing modalities such as tuina and cupping, etc.)

Every traditional society uses medicinal plants for healing. It may seem incomprehensible to you that with so much variety of flora in the environment that ancient societies were eventually able to pinpoint how each individual plant affects the individual. It’s through trial and error over millennia that ancient societies developed a natural pharmacy through medicinal plants.

And if you’ve ever seen an acupressure/meridian channel map chart, the development of acupuncture may seem incomprehensible. Again, it likely took thousands of years for this system to be fully understood.

Acupressure points: the origins of TCM?

But some people have trouble wrapping their head around how it could have even started. For example, let’s use an acupuncture point: stomach 36 (or, as it’s known in TCM, Zu San Li). How could ancient Chinese healers have known that this point, a few finger widths below the knee, could help treat a wide variety of ailments, such as digestive troubles, nausea, vomiting, stress and fatigue? How did ancient healers know not only that this point could help alleviate these symptoms, but it’s location is at this precise location, four finger-widths below the knee, and not three, or two?

Again, the short answer is time. Lots and lots of time and observation.

Historians point to the Stone Age as the likely birth of acupuncture. If you’re wondering how Chinese medicine was discovered, this epoch in ancient China could be the root of TCM concepts still practiced today. It was during this time that stone weapons and tools were used. These primitive tools treated injuries. And if you’ve ever received a massage, you may have noticed that a sensation can radiate to different parts of the body.

It’s these travelling sensations that may be the origin of how TCM evolves (in conjunction with the development of medicinal plant knowledge).

The stone tools used in treating injuries (or inflicting them, in the case of battle) likely caused travelling sensations.

These sensations become orally transmitted from generation to generation before written language in China. Then, during the Shang Dynasty of China (18th-16th century, BCE), when written language evolves, these travelling sensations strike warriors in battle. These sensations are compiled in medical texts.

The Evolution and Origin of TCM Theories

Also, during this epoch of written language’s infancy, philosophers pontificated on the origins of the universe. With little to distract them (unlike contemporary society), philosophers continued to develop the meridian/channel system. They also developed theories that are still in use in TCM today. Some of these theories include Qi, Yin-Yang, Five Element and Six Evils.

The compilation of these theories become perhaps the most famous of all ancient Chinese medical texts, the 18-volume “Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine.”

Nearly everybody is familiar with the ancient Chinese philosopher, Confucius. You may know that his work centered mostly around how to be a proper, moral, upstanding citizen. But you may not be aware that even his writings influenced TCM. Confucius, like the Buddha after his death, stressed that the ‘middle path’ was the road to health and disease prevention.

Confucius’ philosophies would later become integrated into TCM. His writings on harmonious functioning crossed over into TCM organ theory.

All of the principles of TCM theory still in use today, originate at least 300 years before the birth of Christ. The roots of these principles likely are more than 10,000 years old.

There are famous Chinese medicine physicians whose works greatly expanded upon basic TCM theory, concepts and applications. However, the origins of TCM predate their works by thousands of years.

So next time you go for a massage or acupuncture session and notice a sensation that travels to different areas of the body, think back to those primitive Stone Age dweller’s ‘travelling sensations.’

If it’s still difficult for you to wrap your head around the evolution of TCM, that’s ok. It is indeed a remarkable system, perhaps mystical in nature.

  • david ross

    First of all, since Ayurveda shares some of the same technology, it would be nice to know which country developed the technologies. Things like pulse diagnosis and meridians (in Ayurveda meridians are called Nadis) and Qi (read Prana in Ayurveda) seem to be well documented.
    Then there is the issue of discovery, and having some sensitivity of energy flow and how parts of the body react to emotions and imbalance, I suspect what was mostly needed was some degree of awareness, sensitivity, and intellect. It is made to sound as if thousands of years of experience were the basis of the technology, but my theory is this: a group of highly aware individuals made most of the strides in a short time. But this is only my theory.

    When one realizes that some technology is common with another culture, it makes for another and grander interesting story.

    • Sheldon Li

      It is good to know some of the same concepts are used in Ayurveda as well. Thank you.

  • Anthony Fazio

    Some Indian texts contain early acupuncture techniques, predating the Chinese. But the mummified corpse with tattooed points discovered in the Alps predates the Indian sources. this argues for either a universal practice of acupuncture, or a proto-Silk Road.

    Prehistoric man was more ‘in synch’ with his environment; ailing people would be drawn to the proper plant to relieve their discomforts. Observing animals doing the same would be another source of information. Until recorded sources are discovered, science will always adhere to the oldest writing as the original document. But Huang Di Nei Jing is a complete text; it must have existed in piecemeal form or orally for hundreds of years prior to the existing document.

  • George Henry

    It is possible that herbal medicine and acupuncture are remnants of very highly evolved civilizations that have since perished, and these techniques are relics of their medicinal techniques. Acupuncture was already considered an “ancient” technique as mentioned in the Nei Jing. Just how this and other therapies were born is open to wide speculation and mythology. No one really knows, at least not to my knowledge.

  • Tomas Zebulnski

    I disagree that herbal medicine and acupuncture were solely developed with the left brain, or as you write “through trial and error”. There is clairvoyance and intuition. Ayahuasca is a brew of two plants (basic formula) which was used by many many groups of people in South America over vast distances (the peoples had no contact with each other). Scientists would say that it was developed by trial and error (out of thousands of possible combinations), but if you ask the indigenous peoples, they say that they spoke with the plants. This is not some New Age woo-woo story. Humans HAVE the capacity to “know” much by using the right hemisphere. Plants are conscious beings (see the Secret Life of Plants). Yes TCM did develop herbal formulas by testing, but I believe that the roots of TCM and Ayurveda came from the so-called enlightened ones, whose attention was not frozen in the thinking mind as we find today.

    • Brendon Rundell

      I agree with you. However a person wishes to call it I believe this knowledge was shall we say ‘revealed’ by one means or another. As far as I know all cultures make a claim that it was revealed, maybe bit by bit, maybe all at once in some cases, but not through trial and error although that is certainly a method.

  • Brendon Rundell

    What evidence is there that it took ‘years and years’ and trial and error to figure out herb uses and accupuncture points? If anything isn’t there an abundance of evidence where each society claims that this knowledge was revealed to certain people down through the ages? Of course it is disputable but don’t most people claim it was revealed rather than trial and error?