Science and Technology of The Han Dynasty - Medicine

Medicine

Further information: Traditional Chinese medicine and Society and culture of the Han Dynasty

Much of the beliefs held by Han-era physicians are known to modern historians through such texts as the Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon (Huangdi neijing) medical corpus, which was compiled from the 3rd to 2nd century BCE and was mentioned in the Book of Later Han. It is clear from this text and others that their metaphysical beliefs in the five phases and yin and yang dictated their medical decisions and assumptions. The Han-era Chinese believed that each organ in the body was associated with one of the five phases (metal 金, wood 木, water 水, fire 火, earth 土) and had two circulatory qi channels (任督二脉). If these channels were disrupted, Han medical texts suggest that one should consume an edible material associated with one of these phases that would counteract the organ's prescribed phase and thus restore one's health. For example, the Chinese believed that when the heart—associated with the fire phase—caused one to become sluggish, then one should eat sour food because it was associated with the wood phase (which promoted fire). The Han Chinese also believed that by using pulse diagnosis, a physician could determine which organ of the body emitted "vital energy" (qi) and what qualities the latter had, in order to figure out the exact disorder the patient was suffering. Despite the influence of metaphysical theory on medicine, Han texts also give practical advice, such as the proper way to perform clinical lancing to remove an abscess. The Huangdi neijing noted the symptoms and reactions of people with various diseases of the liver, heart, spleen, lung, or kidneys in a 24-hour period, which was a recognition of circadian rhythm, although explained in terms of the five phases.

In his Essential Medical Treasures of the Golden Chamber (Jinkui yaolue), Zhang Zhongjing (c. 150 – c. 219 CE) was the first to suggest a regulated diet rich in certain vitamins could prevent different types of disease, an idea which led Hu Sihui (fl. 1314–1330 CE) to prescribe a diet rich in Vitamin B1 as a treatment for beriberi. Zhang's major work was the Treatise on Cold Injury and Miscellaneous Disorders (Shanghan zabing lun). His contemporary and alleged associate Hua Tuo (d. 208 CE) was a physician who had studied the Huangdi neijing and became knowledgeable in Chinese herbology. Hua Tuo used anesthesia on patients during surgery and created an ointment that was meant to fully heal surgery wounds within a month. In one diagnosis of an ill woman, he deciphered that she bore a dead fetus within her womb which he then removed, curing her of her ailments.

Historical sources say that Hua Tuo rarely practiced moxibustion and acupuncture. The first mentioning of acupuncture in Chinese literature appeared in the Huangdi neijing. Acupuncture needles made of gold were found in the tomb of the Han King Liu Sheng (d. 113 BCE). Some stone-carved depictions of acupuncture date to the Eastern Han Era (25–220 CE). Hua Tuo also wrote about the allegedly life-prolonging exercises of calisthenics. In the 2nd-century-BCE medical texts excavated from the tombs of Mawangdui, illustrated diagrams of calisthenic positions are accompanied by descriptive titles and captions. Vivienne Lo writes that the modern physical exercises of taijiquan and qigong are derived from Han-era calisthenics.

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