Overview

There are three sources of information concerning diseases prevalent among the people of ancient China during the IV2 millennia before the beginning of the present era: These include (1) the oracle-bone writings of the second half of the second millennium B.C.; (2) epigraphical (especially sphragistic) evidence in the form of seals and other objects found in tombs during the first millennium B.C.; and (3) texts of the various classical writings ranging from the Shu Ching and the Shih Ching not long after 1000 B.C.; to the first of the great dynastic histories, the Shih Chi, completed in 90 B.C.; to the great medical classic, the Nei Ching, which took its present form probably about the first century B.C. This material provides, all told, a quite astonishing wealth of technical terminology. Although its analysis is not yet complete, it still provides a firm basis for our conclusions as to the diseases known during this period. The imprecise definitions of some of the terms present perhaps the greatest difficulty, but in fact they are much clearer than one might anticipate before undertaking such an investigation. Moreover, the great continuity of Chinese civilization should not be ignored. Almost unique among the cultures, China possesses continuous traditions of interpretation in this field, directly linking the "sorcerer-physicians" of the second millennium B.C. with the profoundly learned and enlightened medical exponents of the Ming dynasty (sixteenth century A.D.).

It would be possible to organize our material in several ways: purely chronologically, listing texts and their content; or purely nosologically, listing diseases and the terminology relating to them. Both of these approaches would, however, produce extremely dull reading, and therefore we shall adopt a combination of approaches. Moreover, we can provide only a limited number of examples. We propose to bring the story down to the end of the first century B.C., but in so doing we intend to utilize the Nei Ching only in part; we cannot mention all the diseases that are described in that fundamental medical classic. It will be convenient also to consider diseases in the light of the macrocosm-microcosm theories current in early Chinese medicine. The physicians of the Chou period, which lasted most of the first millennium B.C., were extremely conscious of the relation of diseases to geography, to the prevailing climate, and to the seasonal changes of the year. They therefore very markedly shared the Hippo-cratic conception of "airs, waters and places."

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine

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