The History of Holistic Medicine: Chinese Traditions

Clinical Herbalist Reviewed on March 19, 2009 by Paulina Nelega, RH
Posted in Blog

Holistic medicine – medicine that focuses on the body, mind and spirit as a whole – is rooted in various ancient healing traditions that focused on the achievement of health in harmony with nature.

Chinese traditions of holistic medicine originated thousands of years ago — around 3494 BC — during the rule of emperor Shen Nong, who compiled a book on herbal medicine called Shen Nong’s Herbal Classic. Furtherment of the holistic belief system in ancient China came about in around 2852 BC. During his rule in that era, emperor Fu Si authored the I Ching, in which the concept of yin and yang was first introduced. And in 2697 BC, emperor Huang Di wrote the earliest known summary of Chinese healing philosophy, Yellow Emporer’s Inner Classic.

Taoist and Buddhist philosophy were present in ancient Chinese medicine, which was centered on the belief that human beings were intertwined with their environments. This holistic philosophy of life emphasized the interconnectedness of the physical, mental and emotional in human beings and stressed harmony between individuals, groups and with nature.

Ancient Chinese medicine centered on the restoration of health through the balancing of energies between the patient’s body and social or natural order. According to ancient Chinese belief, the body was merely a reflection of the larger system in which it operated.

Treatment of illness, then, emphasized following the Tao in order for the individual to find balance within the universe as a whole. This belief was reflected in the use of herbal medications and dietary traditions. Food was considered an important part of the whole picture of one’s health, and foods were eaten with respect to how they acted in the body.

Chinese medical philosophy taught that the body flowed with a universal energy called qi. Yin and yang were the two primal forces in the universe that complimented one another and needed to be balanced in order to lead a healthy life. Also present in the body were the five elements – water, wood, fire, earth and metal – all of which had unique properties that needed to be balanced within the individual in order for the individual to retain good health. Herbal medicines, acupuncture and other forms of energy medicine were then employed as a means of balancing all of these elements.

Chinese medicine remains today in virtually the same form as it was practiced thousands of years ago. It is the oldest continuous form of herbal medicine in the world. Now, as it was then, it is an extremely complex system of holistic care that is practiced by trained and experienced professionals seeking to help their patients balance their energies and live healthy, holistic, balanced lives.

Read the Rest of the History of Holistic Medicine Series.
The History of Holistic Medicine: The Modern Age
The History of Holistic Medicine: The Indian Tradition of Ayurveda
The History of Holistic Medicine: The Ancient Greeks and Holistic Medicine

Photo Credit: Victoria Reay

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Our Expert

Paulina Nelega, RH
Paulina Nelega, RH, has been in private practice as a Clinical Herbalist for over 15 years. She has developed and taught courses in herbal medicine, and her articles on health have appeared in numerous publications. She is very passionate about the healing power of nature. Ask Dr. Jan

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