Acupuncture: a History

alternative medicineAcupuncture is an ancient art of healing, now practiced as one of the three main pillars of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). But, contrary to many Westerners’ understanding, acupuncture wasn’t always accepted even in China as a method of healing.

In fact, the practice of acupuncture has a very long and varied history.

Acupuncture developed thousands of years ago, with the Chinese being the first to create the a manual for acupuncture called the Classic of Internal Medicine of the Yellow Emperor, which is dated in the first century B.C.

Acupuncture was developed after long observation of the body in action. First came the concept that qi (“chee”), or the vital life force that permeates everything in the universe, flows along meridians in the body. When qi flows freely along the body’s natural meridians, these ancient doctors noted, a person is healthy. When qi becomes blocked and stagnant, illness and disease result.

Over time, key points on the body were discovered into which fine needles made of stone, bone, bamboo, gold, silver, or stainless steel could be carefully inserted. These points, when stimulated, were found to modify the flow of qi.

Both the meridian locations and acupuncture points have changed and evolved over the centuries. The science of acupuncture continued to be developed after the Yellow Emperor’s Classic was written, and further manuals provided up-to-date instruction for both Chinese doctors and more far-flung healers as the practice of acupuncture spread throughout various countries in Asia—and even into Europe via France.

Modern acupuncture is based largely on a text written during the Ming Dynasty in China (1368 – 1644): The Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, with its detailed description of the complete set of 365 points we use today.

In the Middle Ages, schools were created to teach the science of acupuncture, and acupuncture became one of the standard medical treatments along with herbs, massage, diet, and moxibustion (heat) therapies. Bronze statues marked with the acupuncture points have been found from this time, and it is believed that they were used for study and examination.

Chinese laws prohibited dissection of the human body, so anatomy was not a subject of study. Everything these students learned about acupuncture came from others’ (and their own) careful observations of living subjects.

Belief in the effectiveness of acupuncture as a valid method of healing ebbed and flowed over the centuries. During 17th century China, for instance, it was viewed as a superstition and irrational belief by the more educated healers, even if rural villagers still relied on their local acupuncturist and herbalist. As China increasingly opened to Western trade and thought, its rulers had a greater desire to embrace Western medicine, with its knowledge of anatomy. In 1929, acupuncture and other forms of traditional Chinese medicine were actually outlawed in favor of Western medicine.

But while traditional medicine was outlawed, it was the only form of medicine available for most members of China’s vast population.

It was China’s civil war during the 1930s that reestablished acupuncture as an acceptable method of healing. In October of 1934, Nationalist forces surrounded the Communist Red Army of Mao Zedong. The Red Army was facing imminent defeat when it managed to exploit a weakness in the Nationalists’ lines and escape—85,000 men beginning what is now called The Long March, which lasted a year and covered around 4,000 miles.

During the march, the soldiers did not have access to Western medicine, and they soon became ill from starvation and exposure. Almost daily bombardments by the Nationalist army also caused many to be wounded. Acupuncturists began working on the men, and to everyone’s surprise, acupuncture helped maintain the general health and to help the wounded of the Red Army. Following the Communists’ takeover of the Chinese government, Chairman Mao decreed that acupuncture be once again accepted, with Western-style hospitals and clinics devoting entire wings or sections to more traditional Chinese healing methods.

Acupuncture continues to play an important role in medicine in China, and we in the West have become the beneficiaries of more knowledge about and the practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine, including acupuncture.

Maintaining a free flow of qi is essential to good health. Quality supplements that support the body’s energy system and provide support for the yin/yang balance proscribed in TCM can greatly enhance your body’s ability to heal and be restored. Acupuncture from an educated acupuncturist can also provide assistance in both qi flow and in blocking pain.

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