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The Final Days of Traditional Beliefs? Part Three

by Matthew Bauer

Part Three

In this article, I have been explaining why I believe the traditional theories behind Chinese Medicine are today being seriously undermined. My last article (Volume 1 Issue 5 - October 2006) focused on the doubts many modern scholars have regarding a lost golden age in the Chinese prehistoric past when sages of extraordinary insights were believed to have spawned the foundations of Chinese culture including the foundations of Chinese medicine. I ended that article by asking if it is possible to reconcile the traditional legends of this golden age with the doubts many modern scholars now have that such an age ever took place. In this article, I will offer my thoughts on how these two differences may be reconciled after all.

Much of what I have come to believe about the early roots of Chinese medicine stems from what I have been taught over the last 30 years about the roots of Taoism (Daosim). While many authorities credit Lao Tzu (or at least the book the “Tao Teh Ching”) as spawning Taoism, the tradition I study traces its roots back much further. According to this account of history, the original Taoists were the prehistoric Hunter-Gatherers who lived for tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of years before the first transition into Herder-Cultivators began. These ancient people learned to live according to the cycles of nature and their understanding of the natural order formed the foundation of the concepts that would later be known as qi, yin/yang, five-phases, and so forth. Most importantly, these ancient beings experienced life as being comprised of a balance between the physical and spiritual realms. When Taoist folk history mentions China’s lost Golden Age, this is referring to the age when their ancestors lived successfully in both the material and spiritual realms.

The concept of yin/yang is sometimes referred to as a seesaw: When one side goes up, the other goes down. Taoist history teaches that roughly five thousand years ago, people began to put more emphasis on the material aspect of life. As their knowledge of and reliance on the material realm went up, their knowledge of and reliance on the spiritual realm went down. This created an imbalance that caused most to lose their awareness of spirit in everyday life. An analogy credited to Lao Tzu as a means to illustrate this shift in perception considers how clouds can gather in the sky and block the reflection of the moon on a lake. Lao Tzu stated that although people may say the moon has left the lake, the moon is still there. It is the clouds that blocked one’s perception of the moon. Similarly, Lao Tzu stated, our minds create mental clouds that block our perception of the spiritual realm causing the illusion of separation such as the belief one enters the spiritual realm only after the physical body dies. The essence of Taoist teaching is to help people remove (or stop creating) mental clouds. Once this occurs, the reality of the oneness of all creation – matter and spirit - becomes immediately apparent.

Those critical of the credibility of a lost golden age cite a lack of evidence of a continuous, advanced civilization that began in China 5000 years ago as the legends state. Such criticism however, has to do with a materially advanced civilization. Because the ancient sages understood the material realm to be only part of the whole picture, they put much less emphasis on the material aspect of life as compared to later generations. Understanding the dual nature of the material and spiritual aspects of life is the deepest and original example of what is meant by the concept of yin/ yang. The concept of balancing yin and yang refers to the value of balancing the spirit (Shen) with the material (Jing). The concept of qi is the third force that bridges yin and yang. That is what the Chinese medicine concept of jinqishen refers to. It is the Taoist holy triad. This is why the number three is so deeply infused into Chinese culture. Lao Tzu stated this in chapter 42 of the Tao Teh Ching:

Tao gave birth to One.
One gave birth to Two.
Two gave birth to Three.
Three gave birth to the myriad things
. (see note 1).

The 8 trigrams attributed to Fu Shi detail all possible combinations of yin and yang in their essential triad grouping. Many of the numeric based systems used in Chinese medicine and other practices such as feng shui have the number three as their common denominator so to speak. For example, the reason many Taoist texts, such as the Tao Teh Ching and the Yellow Emperor’s Classic, are arranged into 81 chapters is because that number is derived when the number three is cubed. All the Taoist arts and sciences, including such details such as yin/yang or specific numbering systems, were intended to point out that human society as a whole had lost the Tao – the original balance between material and spiritual, and become far-too lopsided toward the material.

Taoist Folk History Continued

Little information about specific individuals or chronology during the golden era was passed down as the idea of “history” as we know it today. History is a materially centred concept with little value to more spiritually centred beings. As people began to settle into lifestyles based on herding animals and cultivating crops, more emphasis began to be placed on the physical/material aspects of life. It was only after this transition that the hallmarks of a materially centered life including the concept of history began to emerge. It is during this period of transition that we find the primary figures of traditional Taoist folk history singled-out as sages and founders of Taoist concepts. This is the era when the three legendary sages; Fu-Hsi, Sheng Nung, and the Yellow Emperor emerged.

Each of these three ancient figures is credited in folklore with developing the all-important aspects of Chinese society – legends most modern scholars doubt occurred. If one takes a step back however and considers these three as a whole, one finds these legends are telling us of something modern scholars do believe in; the all-important transition from Hunter-Gatherers to Herders-Cultivators and then to High (modern) civilization. Fu-Shi is credited with being the first herder, Sheng-Nung as the first cultivator, and the Yellow Emperor as the organizer of China’s original modern civilization.

“We value the learning, achievement and knowledge that came from the time earlier than Fu Hsi. Fu Hsi was the one who gathered all the important information from our much earlier human ancestors. He first developed symbols; not written words, but a system of symbols.* historically, we could say that ancient human culture arose at the time those symbols began to be used.” (see note 2).

While the Yellow Emperor is often referred to as the “father” of the Chinese people and the first emperor, Taoist folk history teaches that during this stage, leaders held no formal power but were recognized by the people as leaders because they were considered the wisest, or most insightful. A hallmark of this wisdom was how well such a leader understood the ways of the ancients i.e., understood the Tao. After the Yellow Emperor, several wise leaders followed until the time when one Emperor took that title based solely on being the son of the previous Emperor. This marked the end of the Taoist sage Emperors. After this period, Emperors consolidated power and took their titles based on blood linage or by force. Taoists sages often served as advisors to this generation of Emperors in an attempt to pass along the ancient wisdom to society. Counselling such Emperors on how to follow the Tao in their rule could be hazardous to ones health however, and many an advisor was executed when they tried to tell these powerful leaders something they did not wish to hear. This ushered in the era of the mountain-hermit Taoist, when those who immersed themselves in the wisdom of the ancients sought seclusion in the mountains away from the turmoil of society.

During this hermetic period, knowledge was passed down primarily through small, highly secretive oral traditions in Master/disciple relationships. This era lasted several hundreds of years as ambitious and often ruthless leaders fought amongst each other. It was during this era that one Taoist Sage, Lao Tzu, broke the hermit tradition and began teaching the ancient knowledge openly to the public. So we see then, that far from being the originator of Taoism, Lao Tzu was the father of the fifth wave of Taoists; the first being the original Hunter-Gatherer sages who were inspired directly by nature attaining a balance between their physical and spiritual natures, the second marked by Fu-Hsi during the transition to Herders-Cultivators, the third being the Sage Emperor wave begun by the Yellow Emperor at the dawn of Chinese modern civilization, and the fourth the secretive hermetic tradition.

It was during the secretive hermetic stage that the formation of Chinese written language began and the records that would form the beginning of Chinese history proper were first produced. During this era, the ancient knowledge, including aspects of healing knowledge, was preserved in small, underground, secretive sects and was only reintroduced to the general public after Lao Tzu broke the hermit tradition. During the hermit stage, the ancient knowledge was considered too profound to be passed on to the general public and especially unethical powerful leaders.

When one takes the above folk history of Taoism into account and then considers the problem of reconciling the folk history of Chinese medicine’s roots with that of modern scholars, one could wonder if the emergence of acupuncture and the theories behind it detailed in the Yellow Emperor’s Classic, may have been the re-emergence of earlier knowledge, just as Lao Tzu’s teachings were to Taoism. We will consider this in more detail in my next article.


Note 1: From “The Complete Works of Lao Tzu” By Hua-Ching Ni, published by Shrine of the Eternal Breath of Tao, Malibu, California, 1989, page 55).

Note 2: From “Guide to Inner Light”, by Hua-Ching Ni, published by Shrine of the Eternal Breath of Tao, Malibu, California, 1990. Page 21. * This is in reference to the 8 trigrams mentioned earlier in this article that form the hexagrams of the Book of Changes.


Matthew D. Bauer began studying Taoist history, philosophy, and spirituality in 1978 with a 74th generation Taoist Master. He has practiced 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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