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The Final Days of Traditional Beliefs? - Part Two

by Matthew Bauer

Part Two

In my last article, I began explaining why I feel the traditional theories behind Chinese medicine are more at risk today than at any other time in the history of this medical system. I described three different groups of acupuncture supporters who are critical of the theories taught in most Chinese medicine training programs. I also mentioned that a fourth group – modern historians – represented another challenge of sorts to traditional theories. In this article, I will expand on why I feel the emerging consensus among historians of Chinese medicine should be cause for concern for the Chinese medicine community and compel us to pay more attention to questions regarding the roots of our beloved medical art.

Before we begin considering issues related to the origins of Chinese medicine, it is helpful to review why supporters of Chinese medicine theories have continued to believe in them – in the specifics of point indications for balancing qi flow within an intricate multi-layered channel/meridian system, in the dynamics of yin/yang interactions within and without the individual organism, in the correspondences and interactions of the five phases, etc.

As I see it, there are two primary reasons why supporters of traditional theories have continued to practice these theories. 1.) The belief that when these theories are applied, good clinical results follow. 2.) The belief these concepts were originally discovered by sages of extraordinary insights several thousand years ago.

As I pointed out in my last article, the first rational – successful clinical results – is coming under fire from a rapidly growing number of acupuncture supporters who claim they can get similar (or better) results by following concepts based on modern physiology models. We can argue this of course, but chances are that any definitive tests of what treatment paradigms provide the best clinical results will not take place anytime soon and may prove impossible to design. In the mean time, I predict that these newer methods – especially those based on modern physiology models – will continue to gain support. If you were the administrator of a hospital or Medical Director of a health plan who was interested in incorporating acupuncture into your offered services, who would you feel more comfortable working with? Western trained doctors/therapists using modern physiology based acupuncture or traditionally trained acupuncturists who claim to balance invisible energy in invisible meridians discovered by mystic Sages several thousand years ago?

The rise of acupuncture supporters who follow modern theories will eventually put the burden of proof for favouring traditional beliefs squarely on the shoulders of the traditionalists and demand more of such supporters than claims of clinical effectiveness alone. At some point, traditionalists may well find themselves trying to defend their beliefs by evoking the legends of the ancient Sages as has been done in China for more than 2,000 years. This is where a careful consideration of traditional folk history together with an awareness of the point of view of modern historians will prove useful.

How Old is Acupuncture?

Do any sort of research on the subject of acupuncture, and you will find three different dates offered-up as to how old that practice is believed to be. I use the term “believed to be” because no one can say with any certainty exactly how old the practice of acupuncture is. The three dates ones sees mentioned are around 5,000 years old, 3,000 years old, and just over 2,000 years old. The discrepancy between these dates may seem of little consequence today- even the most conservative 2,000 year estimate is still quite ancient – but the difference between these dates speaks volumes about the soul of Chinese medicine and perhaps even the soul of Chinese culture itself.

Questions regarding the three dates mentioned above are currently being debated not so much regarding the age of Chinese medicine, but that of Chinese culture as a whole. For more than 2,000 years, the majority of the Chinese people have believed their cultural roots extended back at least 3,000 years B.C.E. The legendary emperor Huang Ti, a.k.a. the “Yellow Emperor”, long referred to as the “Father” of the Chinese people, is said to have reigned from 2698 to 2599 B.C.E. – more than 1,500 years before any written records were produced in China. The traditional date for the reign of the Yellow Emperor is essentially where the 5,000 year old figure comes from for both that of Chinese medicine and Chinese culture.

The problem is that many modern scholars now doubt that Chinese culture is 5,000 years old. They point out there is no convincing physical evidence supporting this date and most believe instead that the evidence suggests something closer to a 3,000 year old culture thus leading some to assume the same age for acupuncture’s origins. Other scholars continue to support the more traditional dates and there is an effort in China today to find the evidence that would prove this. Whatever the outcome of this debate, most historians today point out there is no evidence supporting the idea that acupuncture could have been in existence much before 200 B.C.E.

The main reason cited today that acupuncture must be closer to 2,000 years old, has to do with an important tomb find that took place in early1970’s. This site, known as Mawangdui (MWD) was found in the city of Changsha in Hunan province. It contained three tombs, one of which, sealed in 168 BCE, contained many remarkable manuscripts including the oldest original manuscripts on subjects related to traditional medicine. This find together with subsequent ones (including the oldest known figurine with meridians/channels painted on it), represent the oldest known original materials that shed light on the question of the age of acupuncture.

What was most striking about these tomb finds is the absence of the mention of acupuncture. There are references to moxa therapy, herbs, and qi-gong type exercises, as well as different invocations and exorcism-type practices, but nothing resembling acupuncture as we would know it. The manuscripts and figurine reference 11 meridians/channels – although there is some discrepancy over the exact locations and names of these.

The conspicuous absence of acupuncture in these finds contrasted against that practices’ prominence in the books that make up the Huang Ti Nei Jing (Yellow Emperor’s Classic) have played a major role in the emerging consensus among many historians that the practice of acupuncture must have been invented somewhere just prior to the date ascribed to the Nei Jing – somewhere around 200 BCE. Add to this the fact that the Yellow Emperor’s Classic makes no mention whatsoever of how the fundamental concepts and complex details that comprise the corpus first came to be, and there is nothing in the record to rebut the date modern historians now postulate. Why should we care if the much older dates cited in traditional Chinese folk history should become discredited and a new perspective placing the genesis of these ideas at just over 2,000 years ago becomes accepted?

Reasons to Care

As mentioned above, over the last 2,000 plus years, supporters of this healing system have believed its traditional theories where first discovered by especially insightful thinkers who lived in a prehistoric time and within a pristine environment that inspired profound natural truths. In other words, there has long been a belief the ancient Sages were able to discover subtle but profound truths about life that later generations were not able to discover for themselves. An instrumental part of the longevity of these theories then has been an element of faith that the wisdom of the ancient Sages was trustworthy and beyond the capacity of later generations to second guess. Again, such faith has long been tempered with positive results from following the ancient Sages’ lead, but, absent both any records of how this knowledge was first discovered and the ability to recreate those discoveries today, supporters of these concepts have been exercising a deep trust in the wisdom produced in a long-lost era.

The problem emerging today for supporters of traditional theories is that the thinkers of just over 2,000 years ago were never thought to be as wise as their ancient ancestors. In other words, these more modern thinkers did not seem to posses any special qualities affording them the ability to discover insights beyond what we could duplicate today. And although there are some researchers today who believe they have discovered physiologic markers suggesting the existence of some meridians, the fact is we cannot prove by modern standards even the basic foundations of Chinese medical physiology, let alone the complex details of point/meridian qi dynamics taught in traditional training programs.

If, as many modern scholars now believe, there was no Golden Age of prehistoric Sages that brought forward the foundations of Chinese culture, then one of the main rationales for following the traditional theories of Chinese medicine is seriously undermined. The very foundation of these theories is inexorably linked to a legendary age now being questioned not only as it relates to traditional medicine, but to the very roots of Chinese culture itself. Is there any reason to believe there was some sort of lost Golden Age in China’s deep past? Does the lack of proof this age took place constitute proof that it did not? Can the legends of the ancient Sages be reconciled with the evidence cited by modern scholars as reason to believe such an age did not exist? We will consider those questions in Part Three of this series in next month’s issue of Chinese Medicine Times.


Matthew D. Bauer began studying Taoist history, philosophy, and spirituality in 1978 with a 74th generation Taoist Master. He has practice Chinese medicine since 1986 and recently published "The Healing Power of Acupressure and Acupuncture: A Complete Guide to Timeless Traditions and Modern Practice" (Avery; 2005) a book that explores the roots of Chinese medicine. For further information see;

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