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The Development of the Chinese Approach to Medicine and Science

The first known acupuncture text is the Nei Ching Su Wen and there is a great deal of controversy about the exact origins and authorship of this book. The Nei Ching Su Wen is divided into two main sections, the Su Wen, or simple questions and the Ling Shu, or difficult questions. The book is also known by a variety of alternative titles such as the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, or the Canon of Medicine, but all these titles refer to the same basic text.

The initial section of the Nei Ching Su Wen involves a discussion between the Yellow Emperor, Huang Ti, and his Minister, Ch’i Pai. This discussion lays down the philosophical basis of traditional Chinese medicine, and makes the Nei Ching Su Wen more of a treatise on health and disease rather than a textbook of medicine. Early Greek texts on medicine are mainly of interest to the medical historian rather than the practicing physician. For instance, Hippocrates does make many excellent philosophical and practical observations about disease and the doctor-patient relationship, but for the most part these texts are recipe books for a variety of ill-defined diseases. The Nei Ching Su Wen is timeless and deals almost exclusively with philosophical concepts, many of which seem to be as important today as they were 2,000 years ago.

Professor Joseph Needham, one of the greatest living experts on Chinese scientific philosophy, describes some aspects of the ancient Chinese system of science as mediaeval and retrogressive He feels that many of these concepts have distorted that development and obvious potential of Chinese medicine There is undoubtedly an element of truth in this but there is still a great deal of useful and valuable information within the traditional Chinese approach to medicine.

The Western doctor observes the facts before him and uses the current physiological theories to explain them. Chinese medicine is based on a much wider world view, which is described in the Nei Ching Su Wen, and these ideas are woven into a complete and intact system based on a philosophy different from that of modern Western medicine. The concepts of Yin and Yang, and the number five, are two of the more important ideas that permeate much of traditional Chinese scientific thought.

Yin and Yang are opposite aspects of the material world. Like night and day they are interdependent, and the existence of one end of the spectrum presupposes the existence of the other aspect; i.e. Yin is necessary for Yang to exist, and vice versa. At first the idea of Yin and Yang seems very simplistic; it is not, it describes the fundamental fluctuating balance of nature. A modern concept that pre-supposes the existence of Yin and Yang is ecology, one of the main principles of which is that the forces of the environment must be in a fluctuating balance.

The number five is also very important to Chinese thought. For example, there are five notes in the musical scale, five tastes for food and five elements in the physical world (earth, fire, water, wood and metal). The five elements are not just atomic constituents of matter, they have also been described as the five transitional stages of all physical materials. It is these philosophical ideas that form the basis of much of the discussion in the Nei Ching Su Wen.

The authorship of the Nei Ching Su Wen is attributed to Huang Ti, the Yellow Emperor, but there is some doubt as to whether Huang Ti actually existed and a great deal more doubt about the claim that he wrote the Nei Ching Su Wen. Genealogies of the Chinese dynasties list him as the third of first five rulers of China, and ascribe the dates 2697-2579 B.C to him. Ssu-Ma Ch’ien, an historian of the second century BC begins the Historical Records with an account of Huang Ti and defines him as the founder of the Chinese civilization, and the first ruler of the Empire. He is one of three legendary Emperors who founded the art of healing; the others are Shen Nung and Hsi.

It is probable that the Nei Ching Su Wen was written by a variety of people and was updated by several important Chinese physicians. Some authorities date the Nei Ching Su Wen from 1000 BC whilst others, probably more correctly, date this text to the Warring States period (475-221 BC). The Ling Shu was almost certainly added during the Warring States period, and the twenty-four chapters that comprise the Nei Ching Su Wen were probably revised and re-written at this time.