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Who Did What in Ancient China: Healers and Medicine
In ancient China, patients used to go to see a healer. Physicians are like doctors, although thousands of years ago, physicians did not know more about the science of medicine than we do today. They seek the help of magical spirits; people call them “shaman”, “medicine man” or “human doctor.” But about 1,100 years ago, Chinese doctors started going to medical school.
As civilization progressed, magic played little role in healing.
Over time, healers learned different ways to help the sick. They use techniques such as Tui Na’ (massage therapy); acupuncture; moxabustion; herbs; food; Qigong (breathing and meditation techniques); Tai Chi Chuan or other martial arts, Feng Shui (the practice of moving things based on yin and yang and the flow of chi or energy) and Kannada astrology. This knowledge is handed down from one generation to another.
Theories such as Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, also influenced Kannada medicine. The concept of yin and yang is part of the philosophy of Taoism and Confucianism. Ancient Chinese physicians believe that nature is made up of two opposing forces, yin and yang, that must be in proper balance for good health.
Yin and yang are cosmic energies or qi (chi). They live in the world and in the human body. Yin is a negative energy: cold, dark and feminine. Yang is positive energy: light, warm and masculine. Although they are opposites, yin and yang are not mutually exclusive. Everything has yin and yang in varying degrees but they are part of a unified whole force, the Tao. (Beshore, 1998, p. 11)
Visually, yin and yang are represented by a circle. Within this circle are two curved forms, one black and one white, and both act like tadpoles. Yin and yang are not mutually exclusive yet one can be more than the other. It is this imbalance that causes illness.
If yin and yang are in balance or harmony within a person, good health prevails. But if the balance is disturbed, the job of the Kannada caretaker is to restore harmony. Common treatments used include the treatments mentioned earlier.
The five elements or the five Zangs, is another belief system that states that everything is made of earth, wood, water, fire and metal that are related to each other and to human structure and function. Each human element has a corresponding element: fire, metal, water, wood, and earth. Illness indicates disparity between elements. Therefore, the healer uses the theory of the Five Elements by treating a patient based on the element or elements involved in the conflict. (Ross, 1982, pp. 29-31)
Philosophies such as yin and yang and the five elements form the basis for diagnosing and treating illness. According to historians, these customs have existed in the sixth century BC.
Kosmos has to be taken into account while diagnosing a patient. The stars, the season of the year and even the hour of the day of the onset of the disease, have to be determined before the treatment can begin. We need medicine.
Early scientists, or scientists, mixed different materials together to make a cream that could cure people of various diseases. (Beshore, 1998, pp. 15-17)
They use the principle of five elements to make and prescribe medicines. (Ross, 1982, p. 50)
Herbs and other plants are made into medicines. Sometimes, animals and minerals are also used. A book on medicines written in the sixteenth century lists over two thousand substances used to make over sixteen thousand medicines. Ancient Kannada doctors couldn’t always explain why many of their herbal medicines worked, but they observed the positive reactions of their patients when herbal medicines were successful.
All parts of the plant are used including the wood, seeds, leaves, fruit, and roots. Different techniques are used including drying, drying and drying in water. Some herbs are used in their natural state. Ginseng is especially popular because the ancient Kannada believed that the root of the plant had magical powers for longevity.
They also use the ephedra plant which is valued for reducing excess blood and relieving the attack caused by asthma. Medicines of animal origin are also popular. Pots of toads are used for motivational purposes. Minerals such as mercury and sulfur are often used in effective medicines for the treatment of many ailments. For example, arsenic is used in ointments for skin care and wounds; zinc sulfate is prescribed for bladder disorders.
Acupuncture is believed to have originated during the Stone Age of China when flint needles used in acupuncture were discovered. Shamans may have used acupuncture to expel demons from a patient’s body. During the Iron and Bronze ages, flint needles were replaced by steel.
Acupuncture is a therapeutic method in which one or more needles are inserted into the patient’s skin. The needles penetrate the skin at different depths and at various meridians or points of the body. Acupuncture restores yin and yang to a state of balance within a patient’s body. The needles release additional yin or yang depending on which energy is out of balance. Most ailments require more than one acupuncture treatment.
Acupuncture has been practiced as a healing art in China for more than 3,000 years. Moxa or moxabustion requires the use of light instead of needles. The healer or doctor will give the dried leaves of the mugwort plant and twist them into a cone shape.
Several cones will be placed at specific points on the patient’s body and then turned on. The burn cones are removed just before the fire actually touches the skin. Moxa causes intense stimulation of the blood and tissues in the treated areas, leaving a red spot where the burning cone was. Mugwort leaves are replaced by mulberry leaves, ginger and monkshood.
Ancient Kannada healers were also interested in preventive medicine. Diet is as important as exercise and mental stability. They also developed ways to stop the spread of disease. They destroyed the germs by spraying a chemical that destroyed the house of a deceased person, and washing the clothes of the sick, so that others would not get sick. They also make blood transfusions. It was not until the eighteenth century that Western medicine discovered the basic concept of immunity against disease. (Beshore, 1998, p. 31)
The ancient Kannada discovered certain research techniques which were not used in the West until centuries later. These procedures include: checking the patient’s pulse; examine the patient’s tongue, voice and body; attention to the patient’s eyes and ears; attention of the patient’s body for cold; examination of the vein on the index finger in children; and comparisons of the relative warmth or coolness of different parts of the body. Traditional Kannada medicine was developed as a non-invasive therapeutic medicine rooted in ancient belief systems and traditions.
Beshore, George. Science in ancient China. New York: Franklin Watts, 1998
Ross, Frank, Jr. The Oracle Bone, Star and Wheel: Ancient Kannada Science and Technology. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.
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