What is Chinese Medicine?

Early History

Chinese medicine is a complete medical system with historical records dating back over 3,000 years, and a wealth of texts on theory and on clinical experience dating back over 2,000 years. In the 1970s, archeologists unearthed artifacts from the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220AD), in the burial mounds near Chang Sha in Hu Nan province, known as the Ma Wang Dui (馬王堆). Excavated material included early medical text books written on silk, including the renowned text, Prescriptions for Fifty-two Diseases (五十二病方). Herbal formulas were written on bamboo slips dated 400BC. Other finds dating back to 1800-1000BC (covering the Xia and Shang dynasties) include shells and bones inscribed with terms for medical conditions. Bamboo slips from the Han dynasty were also found near Ju Yan in 1931, and yet others in Wu Wei, Gan Su province, in 1972. Cauterisation practises led to the use of moxa and records show use of moxibustion as early as 290BC.

One of the most famous classic texts is Huangdi Nei Jing (Huangdi's Classic of Internal Medicine) from the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) which remains a valuable foundation text today. Many other classic texts from that early period are also still studied today and relied on for valuable information. Historical documents from the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) record performances of surgical operations using Chinese herbal analgesia.

Contemporary Practice

Although China enjoyed cultural and medical exchange with other Asian countries, the traditional medical knowledge of China did not transfer easily to the West until last century, and in 1978, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that traditional medicine was the major source of health care for more than two-thirds to three-quarters of the world's population. [WHO Traditional Medicine, EB 63/WP/2.,15 Nov., 1978, pp 2-9] With its long history, Chinese medicine practice is very much tried and tested. Chinese medicine is now the first choice of many, rather than the last resort.

The early theories underwent change and development over the centuries, evolving into a refined system of understanding human physiology, a holistic and individualised system of differential diagnosis with their corresponding treatment principles. The choice of acupuncture points and herbs and herbal formulas, are based on these.


Chinese medicine practice uses a number of different modalities:

  • Natural medicinal substances such as plants and minerals
  • Acupuncture, moxibustion and cupping
  • Remedial massage therapy and tuina
  • Dietary and lifestyle therapy
  • Exercise therapy
  • Qi gong (internal exercise)

Acceptance in the West

With such a wealth of recorded history, and a tradition of medicine supported by a line of emperors, providing medical colleges, where specialty departments and an examination system were developed, Chinese medicine has enjoyed a unique position in medical history where the line of education and academic and clinical development was virtually unbroken. The result was a continuous development of ideas and schools of thought over many centuries, as well as the recording of observed clinical outcomes. In recent decades, with research demonstrating its efficacy, and with the interest in integrative medicine, Chinese Medicine is now serving more people than ever before. Public confidence is increased by the regulation of training standards with modern practitioners being trained in Western biosciences as well as the traditional science and skills of Chinese medicine.