Musing on acupuncture theory & where it comes from.


When you mention acupuncture most people think of China but that is not the whole story. In 1991 the mummified body of “Otzi the Iceman” a five thousand year old Neolithic hunter was discovered on the mountainous boarder between Switzerland and Italy. He appeared to have tattoos or burn marks on his back indicating that some kind of treatment had been applied. These marks were at a point we now know as Bladder 23, it is a point still considered useful for back pain. The Chinese Medicine theory we have fully translated has been described to me as the tip of the iceberg but there is a landmark reference book known as “The Yellow Emperors Classic of Internal Medicine”. It was written in about 2000BC and is a definitive work generally considered to be the source of most contemporary theory. However, it was not written until approximately a thousand years after the iceman died. So it seems clear that the origin of using needles or heat to treat acupuncture points goes way back into human history. We don’t know who actually did it for the first time, where they were, or even how they developed the idea. But what we can reasonably assume about medical care throughout the ancient world is that it was localised. There was no Internet or any other realistic means of wide communication and healers in different regions would probably practice according to their own traditions. This would have reflected their local environment and the characteristics and requirements of the people. For example, it seems likely that moxabustion was first used in colder places. Chinese Medicine (CM) therefore developed all over a vast continent and over an extended period of time. It is also clear that there are many similarities to both Tibetan and Indian traditions and that Japan and Korea have had a big influence on modern practice as well. If you read the Yellow Emperors Classic (and unless you read ancient Chinese characters it will be a translation of course) you will find that it speaks in an unfamiliar and poetic language. It speaks of living with the environment, the changing seasons, the climate and the Dao . The book takes the form of a dialogue between the Emperor and Chi-Po his medical advisor and it is very much a reflection of its time and culture. We may assume that what we are learning now is “Chinese Medicine” but actually it must be only a selective and interpreted sample of some of it. Sometimes it is difficult to relate what Chi-Po says to what patients want and need in the treatment room today because so much has changed in four thousand years. The classic does not mention electricity, geopathic stress, antibiotics, sugar, meeting deadlines, Catholicism, cannabis or atmospheric pollution. So although it is accepted that the book records the origin of the theory it has still to be seen as only a guide to what we do in a modern context. Some of it will have been lost in translation and there must have been lots that didn’t get recorded for all kinds of reasons. Consideration must be given to issues like politics, power struggles, levels of literacy and the role of religion. We really don’t know how life and practice actually was for the acupuncturists of the past but we can speculate about it. For them the time was now as it is for us and although human nature may not have changed much it seems clear that many other things have.china-1269610_1280

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