Who Did What in Ancient China: Healers and Medicine

In ancient China, sick people went to see a healer. Healers were like doctors although thousands of years ago, healers knew less about the science of medicine than we do today. They sought the help of magical spirits; the people called them “shaman”, “medicine man” or “folk doctor.” But about 1,100 years ago, Chinese doctors began to go to medical school.

As civilization advanced, magic played less of a role in healing.

In time, healers learned various techniques that they utilized to help their patients. They used techniques such as Tui Na’ (massage therapy); acupuncture; moxabustion; herbs; nutrition; Qigong (breathing techniques and meditation); Tai Chi Chuan or other martial arts, Feng Shui (the practice of positioning objects based on yin and yang and the flow of chi or energy) and Chinese astrology. This knowledge was handed down from one generation to the next.

Philosophies such as Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, also influenced Chinese medicine. The concept of yin and yang was part of the philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism. Ancient Chinese healers believed that nature was made up of two opposing forces, yin and yang, which must be in harmonious balance for good health.

Yin and yang are cosmic energies or qi (chi). They reside in the universe and in the human body. Yin is negative energy: cold, dark and female. Yang is positive energy: light, warm and male. Even though they are opposites, yin and yang are inseparable. Everything contains yin and yang in varying degrees but they were part of an overall unifying force, 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 shaped like tadpoles. Yin and yang never exist individually yet one may be in excess of the other. It is this imbalance that causes ill-health.

If yin and yang are in balance or in harmony within a person, good health prevails. But if the balance is disturbed, the job of the Chinese healer is to restore harmony. Common treatments used included the treatments stated previously.

The Five Elements or the Five Zangs, was another belief system which stated that everything is made of earth, wood, water, fire and metal which are interrelated to each other and with human structure and function. Human organs each have a corresponding element: fire, metal, water, wood, and earth. Illness indicates disharmony among the elements. So, a healer utilized the philosophy of the Five Elements by treating a patient based on the element or elements in discord. (Ross, 1982, p. 29 – 31)

Complex philosophies such as the doctrine of yin and yang and the five elements became the basis for diagnosing and treating illness. According to historians, these practices dated back to the 6th Century BC.

The cosmos had to be taken into account when diagnosing a patient. The stars, season of the year and even the hour of the day of the start of the illness, had to be …