The Final Days of Traditional Beliefs? - Part Four
In this series of articles, I have been detailing why I believe the traditional concepts behind Chinese medicine are more at risk today than at any other time in history. I have been making the case that one of the factors undermining traditional beliefs is the growing doubt modern authorities have regarding traditional folk history’s accounting of a lost golden age. For at least 2,000 years, popular belief held that there was a golden age, deep in China’s prehistoric past, from which sprang the roots of Chinese culture including the foundations of Chinese medicine. In my last article (Volume 1 Issue 6 - December 2006), I proposed a theory that the emergence of the practice of acupuncture and of the worldview expressed within the Yellow Emperor’s Classic - dated at just over 2,000 years old by a growing number of modern scholars - was actually the reemergence of much earlier knowledge that had been carried forward in small, secretive, oral traditions. I believe this “reemergence” theory goes a long way towards filling in significant gaps in the modern understanding of these matters and also towards reconciling traditional folk history with modern scholarly history. In this final article of this series, I will go into more detail as to why I feel this way.
China’s Golden Age revisited
Much of my point of view on this subject is based on accepting some aspects of the lost golden age legends rather than rejecting them wholesale as I would argue many modern scholars have done. That does not mean however, that I think we should believe all those legends. Modern authorities are undoubtedly correct to point out that the earliest “official histories” of the golden age era should not be viewed as accurate history as we would use that term today. These records were not based on the type of evidence we demand of official records today and undoubtedly romanticized some aspects of the early past. The notion that the Yellow Emperor started an advanced civilization 5,000 years ago whose holistic worldview was then passed down generation after generation, enjoying thousands of years of continual refinement within a homogenous culture is most likely a romantic simplification that is not born-out by the best evidence.. Even in China over many centuries, scholars raised serious doubts about these tales constituting accurate, literal history.
The difference of opinion I have with certain modern scholars regarding those traditional legends is perhaps best summed up in an exchange I recently had when I wrote to three prominent scholars to ask their opinion. Not surprisingly, none of them expressed support for the golden-age legends, one replying that to believe in those tales would be as unreasonable as “believing in Noah’s ark.” I replied that, in my opinion, one would not have to believe the details of a literal account of Noah’s ark to wonder if there might have been a widespread flood in prehistoric time. In other words – when I speak of accepting elements of the golden age legends, I do not mean to accept all the details as literal history but rather to seriously consider that these legends give accurate information about some aspects of prehistoric life.
Historians are duty-bound to support their beliefs with hard evidence. This approach is extremely valuable and I deeply respect (and even envy) the discipline required to contribute good scholarly history. I also greatly value well-reasoned philosophy that is by its nature less bound to hard facts, asking instead what unproven truths might lie just beyond the demarcation line of proven, hard evidence. There have been many instances of folk legends - rejected by the best scholars of their day due to a lack of hard evidence - that were later proven accurate (or at least, partly accurate). The most dramatic example of this took place just a few years ago when the remains of an entirely new hominoid species was discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores. Researches there were not even looking for the remains of a race of miniature beings that native legends long held had once roamed that island. Referred to by island natives as the “little grandmas who would eat anything”, these legends were considered so unbelievable as to not be taken seriously by any historian or archaeologist. The discovery of this tiny creature, no larger than an average three year old child, living among modern humans until just 18,000 and perhaps even as recently as 13,000 years ago, ranks as one of the greatest surprises of modern archaeology – a whole new branch of the human family tree not even being hunted before these remains were stumbled upon (Mayell 2004).
So, while it is true there is as yet no hard evidence to support the notion of a lost golden age in ancient China, there is certainly more of a case to be made for those legends than those made for the little grandmas. In essence, the current emerging theory that acupuncture and the worldview promoted in the Yellow Emperor’s Classic is just over 2,000 years old is built on circumstantial evidence that cites a lack of hard evidence to the contrary as its principal argument. There are no original sources proving or even claiming ownership of these concepts and practices from that age. The saying that “A lack of proof does not constitute proof of a lack.” seems to fit well here. It is true that there is a lack of hard evidence supporting the idea of a lost golden age, but discounting such an age leaves us with great gaping holes in what is supported by fact. Consider some of what we do not know for a fact in the case of Chinese medicine:
We don’t know how, when, or where the concept of qi was first developed.
We don’t know how, where, or when the concept of yin/yang first developed.
We don’t know how, where, or when the concept of the Five Phases (wu-hsing) first developed.
We don’t know how, where or when the concept of the acu-points and of the meridian (jing-lou) system first developed.
We don’t know how, where, or when the concept of sticking needles in people as a form of therapy first developed.
And we don’t know why – if the Yellow Emperor’s Classic reflects idea just over 2,000 years old – the promoters of those profound concepts would have chosen to use a legendary leader from 3,000 years previous as a spokesman for a “new” way of thinking? The most common answer given to this question is that the Yellow Emperor was such a revered figure in Chinese folklore that ascribing concepts to him would make them carry more authority. But if this was the case, why was the Yellow Emperor so revered if he never existed as most “Western” historians believe? (Wilson 2007) Isn’t it more likely that someone significant did make important contributions to Chinese culture several thousand of years ago that spurred the legends of the Yellow Emperor leading many generations of highly intelligent Chinese to believe (at least some of) these legends?
While there are some theories out there about the above questions, we do not have any hard evidence that proves any of those theories and perhaps never will If we were to discover evidence that answered any of these questions, it could very well change everything modern scholars currently believe about these subjects just as the discovery of Flores man changed what authorities now understand about the human family tree.
As for me, the reason I find credibility in these legends is only partly due to my inclination to give the benefit of doubt to long-held folk history or even the fact that the arguments against those legends are plagued with critical gaps. The most compelling reason I buy-in to elements of the golden age legends is in just how profound I believe the traditional concepts in question to be. My belief of just what the concepts of qi, yin/yang, Five Phases and so forth represent goes far beyond what most modern scholars seem to give them credit for.
Much more than a medical system
In my nearly 30 years of study and application of these concepts, I find them to be the most broad, deep and internally consistent insights regarding the greatest questions in life. Not only do these concepts offer a key to understanding the essential dynamics of the physical universe, they also allow the potential to lift the veil of the spiritual realm by revealing how these two realms are actually one. Simply put, these concepts provide a means to unlock the greatest mysteries of life. The healthcare applications of these concepts are just the tip of the iceberg – a focused, practical application of a set of concepts with much broader potential. Taoist used these concepts to aid spiritual seekers to probe the deepest mysteries of life and even transcend the yin/yang cycle of life and death. The concept of Taoist “Immortals” was not just fairly tales to these traditions. Countless generations of Taoist have testified to such achievements as being real and verifiable.
If one allows the possibility that the traditional concepts of yin/yang, qi, and Five-Phases have the potential to provide answers to life’s greatest questions by providing a framework to bridge the material and spiritual realms, it then changes the focus of the question regarding the age of Chinese medicine. Now, one is not just wondering when and how a curious medical practice of poking needles in people and quaint holistic worldview theories were first developed. One is now wondering when and how a medical system whose underpinnings spring from a base of knowledge that holds promise for life’s most profound questions began. Simply put, there is something unique and deeply mysterious behind these concepts and the tales of prehistoric sages who lived as one with nature and gained deep insights into life’s most important questions seems a far more likely source for their origins than the thinkers – still unidentified by modern scholars who promote this theory– who lived just over 2,000 years ago.
I began this series of articles (Vol 1 Issue 4 Aug 2006) attempting to issue a warning of sorts to the Chinese Medicine community that the concepts many of us view as the traditional beliefs behind Chinese medicine are being undermined by a series of factors, especially the emerging view of historians. I hoped that by doing this, it may encourage the Chinese medicine community to take the subject of the history of this healing art more seriously, not so much for the intellectual rewards this subject offers, but as a means by which we may be better prepared to defend our beliefs. Beliefs I think need and deserve to be defended. The more we examine issues regarding this history as a means to critically examine our own beliefs – the better we will be able to preserve what may actually be just what the legends have long held: a 5,000 year old healing art for the body, mind, and spirit.
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; www.MatthewDBauer.com
Mayell, H. (2004). ‘Hobbit-Like Human Ancestor Found in Asia’, National Geographic News. October 27.
Wilson, H.W. (2007). Facts About China. New York: The HW Wilson Company.
Differentiating Myth, Legend, and History in Ancient Chinese Culture Maurice T. Price
American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1946), pp. 31-42
“Ancient Worlds” website: http://www.ancientworlds.net/aw/Places/Place/325072