The history of acupuncture

history-imageThere are many questions about acupuncture that are discussed in the clinic, most commonly: What is Acupuncture?  Where does acupuncture come from? Who invented acupuncture? How was Acupuncture discovered? Do the old Traditional styles of acupuncture have as much relevance today as they did 2000 years ago? There are many artifacts and texts originating in China that will start to provide us with a broad picture in answer to these questions. In this way we can establish the root of different styles of acupuncture which are often talked about as separate systems such as Five Element Acupuncture or Traditional Chinese Medicine ( TCM ), or Traditional Acupuncture. 

I visited the first History of China exhibition brought over to the UK by the Republic of China in 1998. There were many exhibits which gave me an idea idea of how far back Traditional Acupuncture goes.  In the exhibition was a section on Traditional Chinese Medicine with various needle exhibits.  There were stone implements, bronze implements and gold and silver acupuncture needles.

The stone implements were thought to be a precursor to the acupuncture needle, these were between 4,000 to 6000 years old. Found in archaeological digs they were thought to provide acupressure type treatment on critical areas of the body. Maybe to treat pain or perhaps to eliminate "bad spirits" or "demons" that were considered to be the cause of pain. The stone artifacts give us an idea that these were the precursor to the use of needles and of course provide us with some incite to the inventive way humans approached ill-health. Perhaps by the shamanic attempts to remove the "evil" causing pain, relief was felt by the recipient. There is no written evidence to support this view, but the stone implements remain an interesting and thought provoking starting point.

The bronze needles dated 800 BC from the Zhou dynasty, while the gold needles were made during the Han dynasty, around 200 BC. This is our first real evidence that acupuncture of some form was practiced in China almost 3000 years ago. It is testament to the benefits of acupuncture treatment that acupuncture has continued to be practiced over this length of time.

At the chinese culture exhibition was an artefact called The Bronze Man. the Bronze Man was created during the Song Dynasty which ran from 960AD to 1279AD. The Bronze Man is a life sized figure covered with 657 acupuncture points, each acupuncture point is shown on pathways of energy called meridians. It was a life sized version of a man, in hollowed bronze which enabled it to be filled with water. The figure was covered in wax, and each acupuncture point had a hole which when needled correctly would allow water to escape. Although much younger than the needle artefacts, this statue itself gives an immense appereciation of the age and complexity of Tradtional Acupuncture.  Although diagnosis to some degree will have changed as medicine has progressed, the principle remains the same. By stimulating acupuncture points on the body, there is an effect that can change the pattern of illhealth in the individual. The acupuncture points observed on the Bronze Man are the same acupuncture points used by me, a humble acupuncturist, in Edinburgh and East Lothian now in the 21st century over 1000 years later.  

The above artefacts give an idea of the depth of thought and practice that has gone into the development of Traditional Acupuncture, and begs the question: what other system of medicine widely practised in the modern world can match 2000 to 4000 years of development and research? The Acupuncture Clinic in Edinburgh and East Lothian has a fine thread which steadily attatches it to the past.

Acupuncture was taught primarily using an oral tradition from master to pupil. Different regions would have had different approaches, knowledge would be shared and passed on. In a huge country with remote and inaccessible regions this and herbal medicine would have been the only system of health care available. There were many different styles and pratcices in Traditional Acupuncture, with acupuncture practitioners studying under a local master of acupuncture. 

What about the written word? The most influential and probably the most important and interesting texts can be found in something called The Nei Jing or Ching, translated as The Classic of Internal Medicine. There is some dispute about who and when the text or scrolls were written, for our purposes it was anywhere between 50 to 300 AD. the most important part of the texts is a part called The Su Wen which is written as a conversation between the Emperor and his Physician, Chi Po. It could be regarded as a record of the oral tradiditions and gives us insight to the systematic way that the subject of good health was taught. It also describes a hollistic form of acupuncture treatment.

The Nei Ching gives us a detailed description of many acupuncture theories and phillosophies, ranging form the meridians , to pulse taking, yin and yang theories to how to live a long and healthy life. I have included the following excerpts here to give some idea of how many of the questions we ask about acupuncture and good health were also asked 2000 years ago. Much of the answers given are as vital and as relevant today as they were at that time, begging the question when will we learn, or is it the human condition not to take heed? 

The following question comes from the Emperor to Chi Po the physician and is taken from a translation called The Yellow Emperors Classic of Internal Medicine.

The Emperor asks:

I have heard that in ancient timesthe people lived to be over 100 years, and yet they remained active and did not become decrepit in their activites. but nowadays people reach only half that age and yet become decrepit and failing. Is it because the world changes from generation to generation? Or is it that mankind is becoming negligent of the laws of nature?"

This question surely is as relevant today as it was in teh asking of it 2000 years ago?

Here is Chi Po's reply

In ancient times those people who understood the Tao ( the way to true potential and health)patterned themselves upon the yin and the yang...there was temperance in eating and drinking. Their hours of rising and retiring were regular and not disorderly and wild. By these means the ancients kept their bodies united with their souls, so as to fulfill their alloted span completely, measuring into 100 years before they passed away."

The concept of the unitedness of the body and soul is an integral one. By damaging our "self" we damage our body and vice versa. By looking after our self (or soul or emotional self) we look after our body, and again the converse is also true. It is the inter relatedness of all parts of us that make us human that is so central to this style of healing and health. It take daily practice and mindfulness to make this work. Practice being the key word, it doesn't just happen, it doesn't always work you just have to keep at it.

Chi Po goes on "Nowadays people are not like this; they use wine as beverage and adopt recklessness as usual behaviour... their passions exhaust their vitalforces; their cravings dissipate their true essence; they do not know how to find contentment within themselves; they are not skilled in the control of their spirits. They devote all their attention to the amusement of their minds, thus cutting themselves off from the joys of long life....... the Ancients.. were tranquilly content in nothingness and the true vital force accompanied them always; their vital spirit was preserved within, thus how could illness come to them? They exercised restraint of their wills and reduced their desires; their hearts were at peace and without fear; their bodies toiled and yet did not become weary." 

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