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How Did Traditional Chinese Medicine Develop?

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

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.