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June 20, 2018  |  Login
By James F. Balch, M.D. and Mark Stengler, N.D.

By the time Hippocrates began laying down the basic philosophy of Western medicine 2,500 years ago, Chinese medicine was already widely accepted and practiced. A coherent Chinese history, in both politics and medicine, reaches back to some 3,000 years b.c.

The oldest record of herbal remedies dates to the beginning of the Han Dynasty (206 b.c. to 220 a.d.). Huang Di Nei Jing, or The Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic, now almost two thousand years old, is one of the oldest medical texts still in use today. Scholars believe that it was compiled over a period of centuries. Written as a dialogue between the Yellow Emperor and Qi Bo, his leading minister, it is required reading for the serious student of Chinese medicine.

Like the Huang Di Nei Jing, the other weighty volumes that form the backbone of Chinese medical practice reflect many centuries of compilation and review. As leading healers tried new variations of herbal remedies, they carefully noted the effects and developed new forms of treatment.

Early on, Chinese medicine included many exotic remedies to cure people afflicted by demons. Magical potions mixed from herbs, minerals, and animal parts were concocted to influence the spirits. Remedies were often linked with alchemy and astrology. Many were based on astrological observations or relied on numerology to provide answers to a patient's health problems.

By the time of the Han Dynasty, such primitive magic had given way to a new ­ system of medicine, based on careful observation. But TCM was not separated completely from its ancient past. Consider the number five. Han astronomers could identify five planets circling the earth. Five vital elements-fire, wood, earth, water and metal-constituted the primary building blocks of the planet. And five developed into one of the most important numbers in Chinese medicine, as physicians sought to understand the complex interaction of forces that influenced their patients' health. They often would mix five different herbs to treat a disease, a practice that extends to the present day.

Near the end of the Han Dynasty, Zhang Zhong-Jing wrote Discussion of Cold-Induced Disorders and Miscellaneous Diseases. Many of the herbal remedies included in this classic of Chinese medicine are still in use today.

New volumes examining various remedies, herbal and otherwise, came along, and today those books are part of the classic TCM library. Chinese medicine grew to encompass not only herbal remedies for illnesses, but also forms of exercise and massage that could help heal the sick and prevent disease. Acupuncture developed into its own highly technical discipline.

After the Chinese Communists seized power fifty years ago, TCM experienced a brief period of decline, as its emphasis on the Tao and classic remedies came in confrontation with Western medicine. more

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