History of Chinese Medicine

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“The superior doctor prevents sickness; The mediocre doctor attends to impending sickness; The inferior doctor treats actual sickness.” Chinese Proverb

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Watch this video about the history of Chinese Medicine.

Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, has a long and rich history and is the third oldest form of medicine. Only Egyptian and Babylonian medicine predates it. The fact that TCM has existed for thousands of years, and is still used today, is a testament to its value as a form of healthcare.

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The isolation of China throughout history plays a role in TCM’s lack of exposure in other parts of the world. However, with the opening of China in 1972, it has been spreading to Western and European countries. TCM’s practice has been shaped over time by many factors. These factors include culture, philosophy, politics, religion, and science.

History of Traditional Chinese Medicine


Traditional Chinese Medicine is rooted in the ancient philosophy of Taoism and dates back more than 2,500+ years. Some reports date it back as far as 5,000+ years. Traditional systems of medicine also exist in other East and South Asian countries. This includes Japan, where the traditional herbal medicine is called Kampo, and Korea. Some of these systems have been influenced by TCM and are similar to it in some ways. Yet each has developed distinctive features of its own.

The doctrines of Chinese medicine are rooted in books such as the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon and the Treatise on Cold Damage. Starting in the 1950’s, these precepts were modernized in the People’s Republic of China. At that time, herbal and spiritual methods were combined with scientific elements.

Origins of Traditional Chinese Medicine Theory


The origin of TCM theory is lost in prehistory before writing was invented. Written language started in China during the Shang Dynasty in 1766 BC. The writings on medicine at that time project back in history over two thousand years. Ancient works allude to the prehistoric period, but are now lost as “legendary.”

TCM is heavily rooted in traditional Eastern philosophy. The philosophy was built on, added to, and modified throughout history. This is very typical of the Chinese, who are a very pragmatic people.

They have no problem accepting a wide variety of philosophies into their culture. An example would be The Three Teachings. Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism coexisted harmoniously in China. We can see this in paintings, with Lao Tzu, Confucius, and Buddha all depicted together.


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Underlying Concepts For YOU


The ancient beliefs on which Traditional Chinese Medicine is based include the following:

  • The human body is a miniature version of the larger, surrounding universe.
  • Harmony between two opposing yet complementary forces, called yin and yang, supports health, and disease results from an imbalance between these forces.
  • Five elements—fire, earth, wood, metal, and water—symbolically represent all phenomena, including the stages of human life, and explain the functioning of the body and how it changes during disease.
  • Qi – a vital energy that flows through the body and performs multiple functions in maintaining health.

Four Key Principles Of Traditional Chinese Medicine


1. Your body is an integrated whole. Along with your mind, emotions, and spirit, your physical body structures form a miraculously complex, interrelated system that is powered by life force or energy.

chinese medicine2. You are completely connected to nature. Changes in nature are always reflected in your body. TCM factors in the particular season, geographical location, time of day, as well as your age, genetics, and the condition of your body when looking at your health issues.

3. You were born with a natural self-healing ability. Your body is a microcosm that reflects the macrocosm. Think about it: nature has a regenerative capacity, and so do you. Sometimes, this ability may appear to be lost or difficult to access. In most cases, it is never completely gone.

4. Prevention is the best cure. Do you know your body is continually revealing signs about the state of your health? Let’s face it; it’s common to ignore these signs or symptoms until something more complicated arises. TCM teaches you how to interpret what your body is telling you.

Integration For Allied Health Professionals


There are many definitions of “integrative” health care, but all involve bringing conventional and complementary approaches together in a coordinated way. Researchers are currently exploring the potential benefits of integrative health in a variety of situations. TCM is an important component of an integrated and personalised approach to health and wellness.

TCM practitioners use herbal medicines and various mind and body practices, such as acupuncture and tai chi, to treat or prevent health problems. In the 21st century, TCM is primarily used as a complementary health approach.

A quote from the Yellow Emperor’s Classics of Medicine, follows “A good healer cannot depend on skill alone. The healer must have correct attitude, sensitivity, compassion and a sense of responsibility.”

A physician needs to possess a moral conscience, ethical conduct and a compassionate attitude toward those in need of attention. In all interactions with patients, the physical is always composed, takes the necessary time, remains objective, and performs every procedure with the utmost care and precision.”

TCM covers many different practices:

  • Acupuncture
  • Moxibustion (burning an herb above the skin to apply heat to acupuncture points)
  • Chinese herbal medicine
  • Tui na (Chinese therapeutic massage)
  • Dietary therapy
  • Tai Chi
  • Qigong (practices that combine specific movements or postures, coordinated breathing, and mental focus)

Does Traditional Chinese Medicine Work?


In spite of the widespread use of TCM in China and its use in the West, rigorous scientific evidence of its effectiveness is limited. TCM can be difficult for researchers to study because its treatments are often complex (involving the whole persona) and are based on ideas very different from those of modern Western medicine.

Most research studies on TCM have focused on specific techniques. These techniques are primarily acupuncture and Chinese herbal remedies.

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Acupuncture for Pain


In a 2012 analysis that combined data on individual participants in 29 studies of acupuncture for pain, patients who received acupuncture for back or neck pain, osteoarthritis, or a chronic headache had better pain relief than those who did not receive acupuncture.


Tai Chi for Balance and Stability


Tai Chi has not been investigated as extensively as acupuncture or Chinese herbal medicine, but recent studies, including some supported by NCCIH, suggest that practicing Tai Chi may help to improve balance and stability in people with Parkinson’s disease. It may reduce pain from knee osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, and promote quality of life and mood in people with heart failure.

“Today nearly a quarter of all modern medicines are derived from natural products, many of which were first used in a traditional medicine context. This supports the integration and modernization of traditional medicine.” Margaret Chan, M.D. Director-General, World Health Organization

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Traditional Chinese Medicine is the third oldest form of medicine. Only Egyptian and Babylonian medicine predates it. It has evolved over thousands of years. TCM encompasses many different practices mentioned above. There are many benefits for its use both anecdotally and from scientific review. Governments and consumers are becoming more open to broader aspects of TCM practices and to considering them as an integrated part of health service delivery.

However, modern scientific research is limited. It has only recently started looking at the effect of integrative approaches to medicine and healing. We are finally starting to accept traditional medicine into the 21st-century health care system.

Try one of the TCM therapies mentioned above and let us know what works for you.

Feel free to share any Traditional Chinese Medicine resources, links to great practitioners, or any resources that help give this area more depth of understanding.

We would like to hear your thoughts! Join the conversation here.


Evidence-Based References:


Yellow Emperor’s Classics Of Medicine

What Science Says About The Effectiveness Of Acupuncture

Easing Ills Through Tai Chi

Expert Opinion:


Foundations of Chinese Medicine

Origins and History of Chinese Medicine

Overview of Meditation


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