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The Origins of Chinese Herbal Medicine

Updated: Feb 16, 2022

A brief history of the origins of Chinese Herbal Medicine and how it works to relieve dis-ease in the body.

Herbs, by lilartsy from Pexels

Chinese medicine is believed to have originated around 3,000 years ago, from as early as the Zhou Dynasty of China. Recordings of herbs and treatments were handed down through generations (and written down in ancient texts, including poetry.) The essential philosophy of traditional Chinese Medicine lies in the energy flow of yin and yang, which makes up Qi. Although there are different elements of traditional Chinese Medicine, such as acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, the central tenet is the same - balance. Chinese herbal medicine itself is a key part of traditional Chinese Medicine and originates from both Chinese philosophy and religion - it holds the belief in ‘holism’ and balance in the body - the Qi.


The origins are largely attributed to three mythical emperors and their dynasties.




Fu Xi (believed to be as early as 3000 BC) is one of the earliest recorded mythical Chinese Emperors and one of the earliest of the patriarchal society in China(1). He is associated mainly with the Book of Changes, which is the primary literary source of the yin yang theory. Herbs, relating to healing and diet, were referenced in this ‘book’, which was a guiding document of early philosophy(2). "Change is the only constant, and change is the interplay of yin and yang."


Shen Nong (around 2700 BC) was the second mythical emperor of China, a character often credited with the invention of the plough and is thought to be the father of herbal medicine(3). He is reputed by some to have drawn the first acupuncture charts.



Huang Di (also known as the 'Yellow Emperor', from around 2697-2596 BC), was generally considered to have written the book the 'Huang Di Nei Jing,' although the work is now considered to have been written later. Huang Di was said to have gathered medical information from immortals and goddesses about medicine plus discussions regarding the theory and practice of Chinese medicine. He is also known as the creator of the planetarium, currency, musical notation and the first wheeled vehicle. Huang Di is considered the invention of the nice needles of acupuncture(4). Last, but by no means least, most people will associate him with the army of terracotta soldiers buried near his tomb.

How does it Chinese Herbal Medicine work?

You have probably heard the word 'Qi' or the expression 'meridian lines'. The meridian lines were said to have been mapped out by the early acupuncturists and physicians, which subsequently led to the system that we use today. Acupuncturists believe that a blockage or imbalance within the meridians that run up and down the body causes illness, stress, disease or pain. We insert small sterile needles along these lines to unblock and restore the movement of Qi and so restore harmony and balance to the body.

Image of body with Chinese meridian lines
Meridian Lines

Many people have trouble grasping the concept of 'energy' or Qi. However, as technological advances have been made, the scientific understanding of energy is becoming clearer. From a medical point of view, if the brain is scanned with an MRI during the insertion of needles, activity in different areas of the brain can be observed and the level of endorphins tend to increase.


How does the energy become blocked?

Emotional upset, overwork, climatic factors (wind, cold, heat etc) poor diet and more can all alter the harmony of the body and acupuncture can help to restore this balance. We take into account every part of your life – from physical to emotional, lifestyle and diet in order to understand the 'bigger picture' surrounding your condition. The treatment you receive is aimed not only at relieving symptoms but at treating the underlying disharmony and correcting it.


For a fascinating look at how Chinese Herbal Medicine has transitioned to Westernised scientific drug discovery, see the 2017 research paper,Innovating Chinese Herbal Medicine: From Traditional Health Practice to Scientific Drug Discovery’, by Shuo Gu and Jianfeng Pei.



References




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